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posted: 12/22/2013 8:00 AM

Cosley Zoo offers behind-the-scenes look at bobcats

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  • Cosley Zoo in Wheaton offers a half-hour program each day that allows visitors to go behind the scenes at the bobcat exhibit. After feeding, bobcat Val licks remaining food particles from his cage.

       Cosley Zoo in Wheaton offers a half-hour program each day that allows visitors to go behind the scenes at the bobcat exhibit. After feeding, bobcat Val licks remaining food particles from his cage.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Cosley Zoo in Wheaton offers a half-hour program each day that allows visitors to go behind the scenes at the bobcat exhibit. Zookeeper Jenny Theuman feeds bobcat Sal a mixture of mice, quail and chicken.

       Cosley Zoo in Wheaton offers a half-hour program each day that allows visitors to go behind the scenes at the bobcat exhibit. Zookeeper Jenny Theuman feeds bobcat Sal a mixture of mice, quail and chicken.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 

Salvatore and Valentino are adorable felines, but don't take them for lap cats.

Although less than 30 pounds, the two bobcats are capable of taking down an animal up to eight times their size, making a 150-pound deer prey.

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Found in an attic in California, sent to a wildlife shelter and from there transferred to Cosley Zoo in 2012, the pair are the stars of Bobcats Backstage, a new educational program at the Wheaton facility.

Visitors can learn all about bobcat characteristics and habitat within a few feet of the two males.

Nicknamed Sal and Val, feisty Val is the extrovert while watchful Sal is the introvert, explains zookeeper Jenny Theuman.

"Nothing seems to bother Val very much," Theuman said during a demonstration Saturday. "Sal is more sensitive and cautious."

True to form, Val bounded to the front of a fenced enclosure to greet Theuman and co-worker Diana Kotche. Sal sat in the doorway leading outside to the zoo's bobcat exhibit, assessing the situation.

Bobcats and cougars are the two cat species native to Illinois. Hunting for fur and to protect farm animals lowered their numbers to the extent they were placed on the threatened species list in 1977.

That action leading to habitat preservation and a moratorium on hunting gradually rebuilt the population, and now bobcats are found in every county, even in the metropolitan region, Theuman said, adding "it's a huge conservation success story."

Bobcats usually live alone, but since Sal and Val have been together since they were cubs, they coexist well.

Despite the human contact, the two are still wild. "They've been observed stalking and caught a squirrel a few weeks ago," Theuman said.

Visitors can sign up in the gift shop to watch "Bobcats Backstage," which is offered at 11 a.m. daily. All ages are welcome, but parents are cautioned that they must hold onto children age 2 and under during the showing, which is indoors. Zookeepers will usually tailor the presentation to the age group.

So far, the program's been a big hit with audiences and zoo staff. "We're pretty excited about our boys," Theuman said.

Safely behind their enclosures, Sal and Val pounce on rods the zookeepers hold topped by shapes, balls and a rubber toy. They're rewarded with chicken, quail and mice.

The interaction offers the animals a chance to "to think and play, and it encourages natural behaviors," Kotche said.

It also trains the bobcats to open their mouths and stand still for short periods, which helps vets examine their teeth.

"The ultimate goal is to extend the amount of time their mouths are open," Theuman said. "Oral health for cats is tricky, but it is possible to train them to accept a tooth brush."

Meanwhile, the audience is learning about "the glory of what's in our backyards," Theuman said. Visitors "can see how graceful they are, how cool and they make a connection with wildlife."

"Bobcats Backstage" is $10 for zoo members and $12 for nonmembers. The zoo is open daily except for Christmas and New Year's Day. For information, go to cosleyzoo.org/.

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