Love and Animals: How Rare Species are bred at Moscow Zoo

August 6
Parks and pedestrian areas

In July 2021, the Moscow Zoo reopened, and so did its branch near Volokolamsk called the Endangered Species Breeding Centre. There they breed animals, birds and reptiles that are almost non-existent in the wild. The Centre's inhabitants have been found in nature reserves and sometimes in wild forests, steppes and mountains. Their cubs are sent to zoos around the world.

The breeding ground was established back in 1994 and opened to the public in 2017. It covers 200 hectares, the cubicles are home to over 200 species of exotic animals, 78 of which are included in the Russia’s Red Book of Threatened Species. reports on how to save and increase the number of endangered species of fauna, whether animals have affairs, and what to do if the mother turns her back on her chicks.

A common ecosystem

The Endangered Species Breeding Centre is being given a guided tour today. The visitors are sighing in admiration, flicking their cameras, and calling out to the inhabitants of the breeding station. The latter are going about their business, reacting to visitors like to other natural stimuli. A bearded vulture is pecking its friend's tail in boredom. Baibaks (steppe marmots) are preparing for winter by hauling straw into their burrows, lining their dugouts and eating duckweed. This conditionally poisonous plant is a choleretic remedy that zoologists suggest as a preventive measure.


In addition, the Centre's staff artificially create non-standard situations by accustoming the animals to life outside the forests, mountains and steppes. By, for example, driving in cars or walking past the enclosures with dogs. Thanks to this training, the inhabitants become less fearful, do not lunge at the bars, lead a normal life and produce offspring. However, increasing the birth rate, as the breeding station workers have found out, is a complicated process. Marriages in the animal world are not entered into at the beck and call of zoologists.

A bride for a leopard

The breeding ground has been designed to be as similar to the natural environment as possible. This helps them to be more likely to breed. The predators, for example, need three-way visibility, as well as hiding places where they hide when annoyed by visitors. That is why their enclosures have three lattice walls, shaded corners and scaffolding on which the animals sit like on branches. The manuls (wildcats) have had their own birch grove with tall grass since this year.

 “The predators, in particular Amur tigers and Far Eastern leopards, are a bit short of room and their mobility is limited. So, we have installed water pools, rings, barrels, cones in the enclosures and hung bridles with smelling leather. They play with all this. When there are no visitors, we put live food in the cages, such as birds, so that they don't lose their hunting skills," says Tatiana Demina.

The Amur tigers, which are included in the Red List of Threatened Species, have willingly accepted all that and feel comfortable there. A male and a female tiger cubs, rescued in Primorsky Krai (their mothers had died) and brought to Volokolamsk, formed a pair and had four cubs. "In nature, so many would not survive. If, for example, a newborn cub is weak or small, the mother abandons it. And here they are all safe. Soon these cubs will be going to zoos in various parts of the world," she says confidently.

The tiger cubs have already reached the size of adults. But their mother is still in control of them: watching from the top tier as they fiddle with each other, growling instructively.

In the near future, the nursery staff is not expecting any more Amur tigers cubs A tigress usually nurses her babies for two and a half years and is not ready to give birth again until they are grown.

"Tigers easily form couples if both are healthy and energetic, they can also switch partners. The Far Eastern leopards, on the other hand, have a different story. In the early days of the Centre, we wanted to get offspring from a leopard with good genetics. We brought him three females from vetted families. All the animals were approved by the curator. We thought all three would give birth with him. Yet, things took another twist: with a female of his own age, he started ... being friends. Brought her toys, shared food with her. He did not perceive her as a party of the opposite sex. The other one, the older one, he begin to hate. Only the third bride, very young and windy, was with whom the leopard fell in love. She twirled him around, but he endured and followed her around attached. They had a son who still lives with us," remembers Tatiana Demina.

The Centre is now trying to create a new pair of Far Eastern leopards. And again, the people say that there is nothing we can do contrary to nature. The female rejects the groom, probably because he had an accident in his youth and is now unable to hunt, although in zoo conditions a “breadwinner” is not needed in the family. And besides, the male snaps back at the mate offered to him. "In three occasions we have let them see each other, and with zero result," sighs the head of the department of animals of prey.

Foster children of a bustard

News came from the ornithology department in June 2021: four fledglings of great bustard hatched.


That time a male and a female bustard took a fancy to each other. But when the bird laid eggs, it was discovered that she was unable to incubate them on her own due to an operation she had undergone. The specialists had to take the eggs to the hatchery. When the chicks hatched, Tatiana became their adoptive mother: if a bird not incubate eggs, it loses maternal instinct and does not recognise them. Now it is Tatiana who shows the chicks how to pinch the grass.

"For their sake I moved to the breeding station and now live here. They need to be fed every two hours. The chicks also need a walk, preferably from morning to night. The bustard is the heaviest of the flying birds, weighing up to 25 kilograms as an adult male. If they don't move as they do in the wild, they will suffer musculoskeletal disorders, and their legs and wings will become crooked," says the ornithologist, luring the chick with food to the scale. It now weighs 843 grams.

The little bustards run out of the room into the aviary with thick grass and coo incessantly that is their way of keeping in touch with the environment. The chicks are fluffy, and speckled and tinted as the steppe hassocks. Huddling up to one’s feet. And making you want to get your hands on them.

"The birds must not be touched. The feathers must always remain clean, otherwise the bird will not be able to fly. If we touch the feathers of a bustard, the natural talcum powder, a protective covering, comes off," explains Tatiana Rozhkova.

The bustard conservation programme is one of the initiatives of the ornithology department of the nursery. Another one is the breeding of fish owls. So far, three chicks have been found in the wild, given amusing nicknames that speak of their character. Kusaka likes to bite human’s hand, Lezhaka prefers to lie down in any weird situation, and Brosaka has a truly Russian character: he often acts according to the principle "first I'll rush, then I'll see". When they reach maturity, the specialists will try to select them mates.

A third programme is the breeding of Far-Eastern storks. "It is a rare bird that is dying because of more frequent fires. But forming a pair among them is our headache. Sometimes we place a female with the male, but there is no synchronised behaviour, no emotional screaming, and no ruffling of each other's feathers. They are very capricious in their choice of partners," says Tatiana Rozhkova.

An affair with a snake

Sergei Ryabov, head of the experimental department of herpetology (the section of zoology that studies amphibians and reptiles -, takes a grassy-green snake with a soft spout over its mouth out of a plastic box.


Until 1995, no Rhinoceros snake had been found in the wild for almost 60 years. It was in 1995 when Russian scientists accidentally discovered representatives of this species in Vietnam and persuaded the Vietnamese government to issue an export permit for several snakes. The Vietnamese authorities agreed, as the forests where the Rhinoceros snakes lived were about to be cleared.

"A total of 15 snakes came to me. Their offspring have spread to many zoos around the world. A total of 10,000 offspring were born from 15 snakes taken from nature in 15 years! There are now three babies living here, having appeared last year, and we are still waiting for additions from the seven eggs that are maturing in the hatchery," says the herpetologist.

Rhinoceros snakes are unpretentious: they eat once a week and nap all day long, curled up under a plastic cover with a hole simulating a hollow or burrow. It is important to have crumpled paper scattered around - the snake perceives it as dry leaves.

All the inhabitants of the breeding ground are innocuous. "I am often asked how to tell the difference between a poisonous snake and a non-poisonous one. There, poisonous ones have a large head that connects to the torso like a neck. And non-poisonous species have their head practically unseparated from the body. Anyway it would be good for a person that is not specialist never to be overly familiar with snakes. Otherwise there could be bites and tragic incidents," says Sergei Ryabov.

But his fascination with snakes goes on. The herpetologist has plans to develop a safari theme park at Moscow Zoo, where visitors can observe reptiles in their natural environment.


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