Kathy Antoniotti

Snow leopard parents Shanti and Rosco are proud to announce the birth of twin boys, officially known as Cub One and Cub Two, on May 14.

They are the first snow leopards to be born at the Akron Zoo.

Shanti’s pregnancy wasn’t much of a surprise to staff members when they realized in March that she was expecting. After all, the snow leopard, whose species is native to the Himalaya mountains of Central Asia, is endangered. So just about every important event in Shanti’s life is guided by a Species Survival Plan developed by the Association of Aquariums and Zoos, a global wildlife conservation effort dedicated to protecting the species, said Kay Cook, the zoo’s full-time veterinarian.

“It was very much a planned pregnancy and somewhat of an arranged marriage,” Cook said.

The surprises came later.

Shanti, whose own mother rejected her at birth, had little experience in parenting. She had been hand-raised alongside a puppy by keepers at Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek, Mich., her home before arriving in Akron in 2009.

“The wonderful thing about Shanti is that she is a very trainable kitty,” Cook said.

After it was apparent Shanti was expecting, zookeepers began teaching her to let Cook give her weekly ultrasound tests to monitor the cubs’ growth. Zoo staff members began to prepare in case Shanti showed signs of maternal indifference — or worse.

“We had protocols and plans in place for hospital staff to step in, if necessary,” Cook said.

Shanti began showing signs that birth was imminent on Mother’s Day, refusing dinner and pacing around her cage. Zoo employees had made her a partially covered birthing box so she would have a private, cozy spot to herself when her time came, Cook said.

“I was amazed when she went into the box all by herself,” she said.

Shanti began having labor contractions about midnight.

By 4 a.m., with staff members in place, the baby officially known as Cub One was born. His brother appeared about two hours later. True to form, Cub One seems more adventurous — the first to leave the box and the first to engage in play with enrichment toys, said David Barnhardt, director of marketing and guest services.

Shanti immediately began caring for them as if she were born to do the job, Cook said.

“I didn’t sleep well for about a week — until I was sure she was going to raise them,” she said.

The births were kept quiet until the zoo’s hospital staff was sure the newborns were progressing normally, Barnhardt said. He said there are only 155 snow leopards under the Species Survival Plan in the United States and about 4,000 of the animals left in the wild. Loss of natural habitat and poaching have decimated the species.

At 6 pounds and a little over 6 weeks old, each cub received its first vaccinations Thursday. They will stay indoors with Shanti at least until the end of July, Barnhardt said. The zoo will hold a naming contest in mid-July.

The cubs’ father, Rosco, a 9-year-old snow leopard who came to Akron in 2004 from the San Antonio Zoo and Aquarium, will never have direct contact with his cubs and will not participate in their rearing, Barnhardt said.

“Ideally, we would want [the mother] to raise them just as she would in the wild,” he said.

So far, Shanti is doing a spectacular job as a first-time mother, Cook said.

“She’s perfect, and I don’t say that lightly.”

Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or kantoniotti@thebeaconjournal.com.