This blog article was written by Zookeeper Tim Lescher, article taken from our recent edition of the zoo's Animal Tracks Newsletter.
When Malala the snow leopard first arrived at the Alaska Zoo, we watched anxiously and expectantly as her crate door was opened. I thought it would take some time for her to emerge. I thought it might take minutes, even hours, after the long flight from New York to Anchorage.
“Lala,” came the singsong call from Nora, a zookeeper from the Central Park Zoo. Almost immediately, a fluffy grayish head with charcoal rosettes poked out. Nora tossed some meat on the den floor and Malala crept out of the crate and began eating. It was a sign of things to come - for Malala is an eater.
She is also many other things: A sweetheart, a goofball, a member of a vulnerable species from remote habitats in the Himalayas, Nakai’s best friend, Nakai’s sparring partner, Nakai’s favorite thing to watch and an aspiring pumpkin carver.
Nakai is our male snow leopard. When Malala first emerged from her den, he immediately began leaping from crag to crag watching her, tail twitching with a mind of its own. Malala is the most adored enrichment of Nakai. By the same token, she often ignores her own toys and treats, preferring instead to watch Nakai, and see what he will do with his. As a zookeeper, I feel the best enrichment for any animal is having a member of the same species move in with them.
During the past year, Malala and Nakai have grown together by leaps and bounds, both physically, and emotionally. Malala is a more outgoing, confident and playful animal than she was when she first arrived last summer. I attribute much of this to having the bold Nakai next door. Nakai, meanwhile, is relatively calm in comparison to other snow leopards. He seems to have matured, yet still enjoys showing off his amazing climbing skills for Malala.
These two cats have not just enriched each other, but the entire Alaska Zoo, as well. I am fortunate to get to care for these amazing, beautiful and mystical animals. The presence of snow leopards at the zoo, watching visitors with their unflinching gazes from atop their mountain, reminds staff and visitors alike why it is important to conserve remote wilderness, and the life that dwells within it.