Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington may be one of the smaller accredited zoos in the nation. It's a leader, however, when it comes to preserving several species of animals that are threatened or endangered.
The zoo currently is helping some 20 species survive, including the snow leopard, the red wolf, and San Clemente Island goat. It is a breeder for about 50 kinds of animals to insure they don't become endangered. Among them are: the sumatran tiger, tammar wallaby, the red-ruffed lemur and the kookaburra, a long-bill bird.
"The animals you see at the zoo, those are ambassadors" for their species, said zoo director Jay Tetzloff.
I began my tour with Tetzloff of the zoo's rare and endangered animals at the den for snow leopards. These sleek creatures are native to the Himalayan region of central Asia.
Tetzloff estimates there are only about 4,000 snow leopards left in the world.
"I may not see snow leopard in the wild in my lifetime, my kids and grandkids may never see a snow leopard in the wild. So we want to get (the next generation) engaged. If they don't see or know what an animal is, they are not going to want to save it," he said.
Snow leopards are striking animals with stunning gray eyes, white and gray markings and long tails.
"The long tail has two purposes," Tetzloff said. "One is for balance in the mountains when they are on steep cliffs. When it's cold and they are resting, they will use it as a scarf."
Miller Park Zoo is the North American coordinator for snow leopard survival. "What that means is we say who breeds these cats, where those cats go, within 69 different institutions, every single snow leopard in North America, 150 cats," Tetzloff said.
The zoo is the only one in North America to have successfully bred snow leopard cubs two years in a row.
"Humans are the number one reason" snow leopards and other species are currently threatened, Tetzloff said.
Loss of habitat is an issue, even for the snow leopard, which dwells in fairly remote mountainous area.
"As people moved up in altitude, they changed more areas into agriculture for farming, grazing and cattle. That land that used to be for snow leopards, people are inhabiting those areas."
Poaching is also a problem. Hunters seek out the snow leopard for its meat and pelts.
Why is it significant when an animal like the snow leopard begins to disappear?
"Everything is part of the cycle of life," Tetzloff said. "If we lose an apex predator like snow leopard, then deer and other animals the snow leopards prey upon, those animals will increase. Those are animals that eat farming grains, they will go into the fields and eat the crops. So we need every piece of that chain in place."
The red wolf is another mammal the zoo is hoping will once again thrive. This particular wolf was once extinct the wild, the result of excessive hunting.
Wildlife officials caught every red wolf they could find in the wild, and brought them into captivity. "We're starting now to breed them and put them back," Tetzloff said.
The zoo currently has a litter of four male pups, offspring of a couple that had not reproduced before. That is significant, Tetzloff said, because "we are adding genes to the pool and we always want that pool to be as deep as we can get it."
As many as 100 wolves were released back into he wild in North Carolina. But their number has dwindled to about 40, Tetzloff said.
"North Carolina changed its ideas and philosophy" after some of the wolves spread onto public lands "and now they are removing red wolves," Tetzloff said.
"It's a critically needed species in U.S.," he added. "How do we go to other countries and say you need to manage your populations better and save this native species if we're not doing a good job ourselves?" he asked.
Because of population loss, some red wolves -- which are actually more brownish-red than pure red -- are mating with coyotes in the wild, producing hybrids. Tetzloff said he worries the pure red wolf will one day once again go extinct.
"We are trying to find a (another) place in the U.S. where we can do a reproduction program," he said.
The zoo isn't only focusing on mammals. It also has one of the largest native plant gardens in Bloomington-Normal to attract bees and butterflies, which are critical to pollinating a variety of flowers and plants.
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