A Little Baby Miracle

By Linda Nguyen
Copy Desk Chief

The National Zoo might have a baby panda, but Cameron Park Zoo has Aztec, the miracle baby ocelot.

Aztec was born on May 31 at Cameron Park Zoo, and is considered a miracle baby because of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his birth.

Cameron Park zookeeper John Abernathy said part of the reason Aztec was a miracle was because his mother Maya was so old when she had her first child.

“This was her first birth,” Abernathy said. “She was 13 years old when she gave birth to Aztec on May 31. She turned 14 two days later.”

Abernathy said ocelots reach sexual maturity at 2 to 3 years old. He said they tried for two years to mate Maya with Gustavo, the zoo’s male ocelot. They also tried artificial insemination by a team of veterinary specialists from the Center for Conservation and Research for Endangered Wildlife (CREW).

“Last year we had an artificial insemination group called CREW come in and do an artificial insemination using his sperm and assessed her and used hormone injections to try to increase her chances, but it didn’t take,” Abernathy said. “So the fact that a year later, she had a baby even after that is quite a miracle.”

He said one possible explanation for Aztec’s birth is the hormone injections Maya was given in preparation for the artificial insemination could have kicked her system in gear and facilitated breeding.

“But possibly, it was just a miracle,” Abernathy said.

Abernathy said the zoo keepers and staff members were surprised by Aztec’s birth.

“We come in and weigh our animals monthly and her weight had stayed the same, a constant 19 to 20 pounds, and we didn’t see any alteration in her physical appearance or behavior,” Abernathy said. “The day before the birth, she had stopped eating and was acting a little strange, so we decided to keep her inside, off of the exhibit. The next day, our curator came in and found our miracle baby in the stall with her.“

Terri Cox, curator of programs and exhibits at Cameron Park Zoo, said she found baby Aztec while she was leading some new staff members on a behind-the-scenes tour.

“I came in and Maya, what I thought was Maya, was making this funny little noise and I thought, Maya, I have never seen you make that noise before and lo and behold it was the squeaking of the baby ocelot,” Cox said. “I think more exciting was the look on John and Rachel [his zookeepers]’s faces when they walked in and saw this.”

Aztec is off the exhibit until he grows large enough to safely be out in the public’s view.

“Aztec, at this point, we’ve assessed that he’s a little bit too small,” Abernathy said. “There is a running stream, as well as the mesh on the top of the exhibit that is a little larger. There are certain spots where he could get stuck in.”

Abernathy added when the time comes for Aztec to enter the public view in the exhibit, the zoo will send out a press release.

Abernathy said Aztec’s growth has been consistent with normal baby ocelots.

“He’s been growing like a champ,” Abernathy said. “At about two months, he started eating food on his own and stopped nursing.”

He added Aztec has a playful and inquisitive personality and enjoys playing with new toys.

“Since he’s a young ocelot, he has a lot of energy,” Abernathy said. “He’s growing and exploring. He’s got his muscles, so he can walk around. His mother is letting him have more free roam. Anything we give him, he pounces on, plays with. He just recently started climbing his fence to get higher; all cats like to get high up. He’s been pestering his mom, playing with his mom’s tail. Even though she’s so old, she’s very patient with him.”

Abernathy said while Maya is still taking care of Aztec, at between 6 months and a year, she will kick him out to fend for himself. He said other big developmental milestones for Aztec were opening his eyes for the first time, taking his first steps and eating solid foods on his own. Abernathy said seeing the ocelot open his eyes for the first time has been his fondest memory of Aztec.

“The first two weeks or so he kept his eyes closed,” Abernathy said. “She kept a close eye on him. She just laid with him and he slept with her. Anytime Gustavo or a male came anywhere near the fence line, she hissed at him and everything, very protective. I remember coming in one morning and she moved just right and he peered his little face and his eyes were open for the first time.”

Abernathy said that males do not normally help parent the baby ocelot in the wild, so Aztec and his father Gustavo are kept in separate cages.

“He’s very curious about his dad,” Abernathy said. “He’s separated from his father because in the wild, they don’t interact the young because it’s a potential danger. It’s not in his instincts to be parental. He’s very inquisitive of him. They try to see each other through the fence.”

Cox said Aztec was named through a vote by the administrative staff.

“We had the keepers submit some names and administrative staff voted on them,” Cox said. “Our general director and curator submitted the name Aztec and more votes went for that one. They joked they were going to override whatever name was picked anyway because they never get to name the animals. That was how he got it.”

Aztec’s name was also related to the area where ocelots range.

“It was based on where they’re found and where they’re prevalent now,” Cox said. “They used to range all the way up through Central Texas but now they’re almost extinct except for in small pockets in South Texas and Arizona and New Mexico. They’re primarily found in South and Central America where the Aztecs and Mayans lived.”

Cameron Park Zoo is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Admission is $9 for adults, $6 for children, $8 for senior citizens and children under 3 years old are free.