MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Cape May County’s snow leopards have done it again. For the fourth year in a row the rare big cats from Asia have produced babies.

“Maybe it’s just being at the shore,” reasons Alex Ernst, a veterinarian at the Cape May County Park & Zoo.

Celebrating its 35th year in operation this year, the zoo that opened in 1978 with 70 animals has come a long way. There are now more than 500 specimens, representing about 250 species, spread out over 74 forested acres. The zoo is one of county’s most visited attractions and recently was ranked the No. 3 zoo in the nation by the Internet travel site Trip Advisor.

The zoo pretty much began as a “petting zoo” with domestic barnyard animals, one lion and some spider monkeys.

Although barnyard animals still are featured, the zoo also has a Siberian tiger, a red-necked wallaby, a scimitar-horned oryx, and four rare Chinese alligators. There is an expansive African Savannah that includes zebras, ostriches, antelopes and giraffes. The Reptile House features reptiles and amphibians from around the world, including the endangered Eastern tiger salamander, and the walk-through aviary has a wide selection of birds.

The 13 pink flamingos came from the late singer Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.

The zoo also is one of the few accredited zoos with free admission.

“St. Louis and Chicago are free. It’s unusual but we operate on donations and we really appreciate the support,” said Cape May County Parks Director Mike Laffey.

To put the feat of the snow leopards’ birth  in perspective, Ernst said only 13 are born in captivity on a typical year. There are about 45 breeding pairs of the endangered cats in captivity, but only about seven successfully breed each year, having one or two cubs.

The local female, Himani, with help from her mate Vijay, has produced seven cubs since 2010. The first five have gone to other zoos that are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited breeding program. Sabu, Kaba, Nubo, Chameli and Bali hopefully will have families of their own. The program, which involves moving the young leopards around to ensure genetic diversity, helps the survival of the species, as there are only 4,000 to 6,000 snow leopards left in the wild.

“I’d love to say it’s something we’re doing. I think we just have a very special female. And the male too, he can’t be discounted. She’s very fertile, produces strong healthy cubs and takes good care of them,” Ernst said.

Star attractions like the snow leopard cubs help bring much-needed revenue. Last year zoo donations and programs brought in $998,000, Laffey said.

“The snow leopards have a lot to do with that. People love little furry babies. That’s what it is,” said Laffey.

That seemed obvious last Friday at the zoo as Himani tended her cubs in the steady rain, licking them and giving them a verbal signal, called chuffing, to greet them when they returned after climbing around the outdoor enclosure. The crowd loved it.

“They’re so cute,” said Kate Puricz, 15, who was visiting from North Carolina.

Why are they so cute?

“I don’t know,’ said Puricz. “They’re just tiny but they look like cats and they’re fun to see.”

Her aunt, Erin Reily, of Point Pleasant, said they had planned to go out whale watching off Cape May but the weather drove them to the zoo for the day. Reily was pretty impressed with the zoo, which she had not visited before, and she loved watching the eight-pound spotted snow leopard cubs.

The cubs, as yet unnamed, were born on April 20 after a pregnancy of about 100 days. They will stay with their mother probably until November or December before going to another AZA accredited zoo.

“The mom will come into heat at the end of December, and in January we’ll start the whole thing over again,” said Vince Sonetto, supervising animal keeper at the zoo.

In the wild, Sonetto said the mother would stay with the cubs for up to 22 months, as she would have to teach them how to hunt.

The illegal fur trade, and farmers and sheep herders, kill them in the wild. Here they are fed a steady diet of fresh beef and have an air conditioned den.

Zoo visitors are getting a bit spoiled by having leopard cubs every year to see live or via the new Cub Cam video display of their indoor and outdoor areas. Sonetto hopes they can keep producing, but notes Himani is 10 and Vijay is 14.   

“The mom can go another five or six years if she stays healthy. Vijay is getting up in age,” Sonetto said.

The zoo is seeking donations for a new maternity den and habitat improvements for the snow leopards. This would include a 500-square-foot masonry den, 2,000 square feet of new habitat, a water feature, and a glass wall for close viewing by the public. They currently have to rotate outdoor time for Himani and Vijay, because he can’t be with the cubs. The new exhibit would solve that problem.

So far, $125,000 has been raised toward the first phase goal of $250,000.

Ernst notes the new habitat could lead to more snow leopards for the public to see.

“If the (Zoo) Society raises the money for a bigger and nicer habitat we can finally keep a couple of the cubs we produce,” said Ernst.

The Cape May Zoological Society, a nonprofit partner that helps support the operation, is a big reason for the success of the zoo. In 2012 the organization spent $169,300 on the zoo. Laffey said the zoo also gets money from the $1.7 million budget for Cape May County’s three parks. The main funding is donations that have been steadily rising as the zoo becomes more popular. Laffey said they were at $571,000 in 2007 but hit a high last year of $998,000.

There are other ways the operation raises money, including the Safari Cafe, the Ark in the Park Gift Shop, and rides on a carousel and a train, which cost $3 each or two rides for $5. Comedian Tina Fey recently took her daughter on one of the train rides. Laffey said concessions brought in $268,000 last year.

Laffey noted the zoo is not the only thing being improved. The zoo is within the 200-acre Cape May County Park Central, which also has bike paths, fishing ponds, disc golf, picnic areas, tennis, a playground and a baseball field. The park is open from 9 a.m. to dusk, while the zoo hours are 10 a.m. to 4:45 pm.

Contact Richard Degener: