The Call of the Wild

At the beginning of 2015, M’Bopicuá Nature Park welcomed a new and unexpected member to its family, which piqued the interest of National Geographic and started a journey of hope for one of our most charismatic cats.

One morning while the head of M’Bopicuá Nature Park, Juan Villalba, was leading a group of schoolchildren, an employee called him and asked to speak to him privately. They were both in front of the margay enclosure, and the students walked off toward other areas of the nature park.

Juan told them to keep going and that he would catch up with them soon, and he listened to the man with intrigue. “There’s a little cat in the corner,” the employee told him. “What little cat?” asked the head of the nature park, who knew exactly which and how many animals there were, which did not include a “little cat.” “Yes, its eyes are closed. It must have been born recently,” insisted the man.

Juan approached the margay habitat with foreboding and inspected the area carefully. What he found in the corner, to his surprise, certainly was a little cat, but not just any little cat: It was a baby margay, the first to be born in the nature park. It’s not that Villalba didn’t know that something like that can happen when a male and a female are put together in the same space for long periods of time, or that he believed that some kind of feline immaculate conception had occurred. To understand his surprise, you have to know how unusual it is for margays to reproduce in captivity.

The margays’ situation is perhaps not iconic or world-famous like the pandas’, who are subjected to all kind of unsolicited and even undignified treatment to get them to engage in some type of “action” in their cages, now quite a cliché in the public’s imagination, but the small cats also have a long history of failure when it comes to captive breeding. So what had happened this time?

First They Want Things

The parents of that newborn margay hadn’t just met. Their story, described in detail in another article, starts with them living together in the house of a couple of veterinarians in Velázquez, Rocha, before moving to M’Bopicuá Nature Park two years before the event recounted in this story. Although they had shared a cage for a while, they had never reproduced. And for good reason.

The baby’s mother was Margarita, a very charismatic margay who had been rescued when she was just a few days old and who was very used to being around humans. The father, who had quite an unstable temperament, had been found in a chicken coop and hadn’t initially shown any promising signs when face-to-face (or nose-to-nose) with Margarita. In the beginning, they didn’t exactly have the easiest relationship or the most relaxed interaction, a prerequisite for having babies in the short term. Any naturalist or biologist knows that. Even Keanu Reeves, who of course isn’t either of those things, announced in the movie Speed, “Relationships based on intense experiences never work.” Or almost never, as we’ll see.

Reading Too Much into Things

That morning, Margarita placed the small margay in a tree hollow and began to nurse it. As a precaution, Villalba removed the male from the enclosure, separating him from the baby and its mother. He had a very good reason for doing so: In the wild, after mating, the male returns to his solitary lifestyle, not living with the baby or its mother. The forced interaction in captivity is precisely one of the many obstacles to successful reproduction.

That M’Bopicuá Nature Park managed to breed margays in captivity is neither a stroke of good luck nor a minor event, nor an isolated one, as will be seen. Hundreds of institutions from all over the world can testify to their failed experiences in this matter.

As with any other species, when the margay’s natural environment is altered, its normal behavior patterns change, explains Juan. For example, these animals go from a solitary life to having to live with another member of their species, a situation that eliminates the possibility of natural selection; in captivity, the assortment of options that nature provides doesn’t exist.

If there are only a few individuals, they may not be compatible, “for reasons only the animals know,” notes Villalba, although any teen who has unsuccessfully looked for a partner is sure to understand this concept.

This doesn’t present an issue in the wild, where the male and female immediately separate if they are not compatible. Their singing, or meowing, is different if you put a pair together in captivity hoping for a guarantee that they will reproduce.

Why, then, is the situation at M’Bopicuá different? One of the measures taken by the nature park is to not put the cats in the same enclosure without first doing a trial run. Let’s call it a socially distanced first date. They are put in adjacent enclosures separated by fabric, and the park employees see how they react, for example, whether one margay gets upset and retreats or tries to get closer and establish contact if the other approaches. First, explains Juan, their behavior is studied.

This process may take weeks or months, although in the case of Margarita and her partner, as recounted in another story, it occurred spontaneously.

The issue is not isolated to a controlled situation. An important part of this is the species’ needs, such as providing conditions that closely resemble its natural environment. For the margay, this means a tall, wide space with trees they can climb just like in nature.

Diet also plays a role. They need food similar to what they would eat in the wild so that they feel more comfortable and most importantly, active. That’s why the nature park allows its margays to hunt every so often. Animals in captivity who hunt and therefore stay active have been shown to be more successful in reproduction. It’s not just a matter of having the proper nutrition but a psychological factor, because this is the most natural way for the animal to eat.

That brings us to another key factor: solitude and tranquility. In the nature park, since the animals spend most of their day in solitude, they can eat at any time. These animals are not exposed to interaction with visitors for several hours a day like they would be in zoos, so they are sensitive to the presence of humans. Villalba notices right away if someone has entered the nature park because the animals’ behavior changes, even when the strangers are still 200 or 300 meters away. In this sense, they function as a remarkable alarm system.

That not being subjected to the stress of thousands of people going by, yelling, and running is essential to their reproduction has been evident in this pandemic: In the face of the mandatory closure of zoos for many months, several of them experienced an explosion of births.

Those Who Appear in Magazines

The nature park’s success as a margay matchmaker did not go unnoticed. On June 8, 2015, Juan Villalba received an email from a National Geographic journalist, Patty Edmonds, who had heard about the news of the margay’s birth through the website ZooBorns.

After explaining that she hadn’t found any similar examples, Patty asked him for some information about their behavior and reproduction in captivity. In fact, if you look at ZooBorns’ records, this is the only example of margay reproduction among hundreds of zoos.

Juan described some of the aspects of the animals’ care and sent her a few photos. A few months later, National Geographic published an article about margays with a particular focus on M’Bopicuá Nature Park for its work in breeding.

It described the delicate situation of the margay and cites data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which estimates that its population may shrink by 30% by 2025. It also pointed out that captive breeding at M’Bopicuá provides a possibility for its reintroduction in Uruguay.

National Geographic explains that every 32 or 36 days, when the females go into heat, the males approach, prowl the area for a couple of days, initiate sexual intercourse if they’re lucky (which lasts up to a minute), and disappear. If the female conceives, two and a half months later, she will give birth to a kitten or with any luck, two.

“It was a great excitement for me, knowing how difficult it is to raise small cats,” recalls Juan of the moment he saw that first kitten. Such was his enthusiasm that he initially acted like an overprotective parent: He constantly went to check on it and tossed and turned in bed if there was a storm. Then came the follow-up work to make sure the kitten was okay. Since Margarita was tame, the kitten could be thoroughly monitored, including weighing it and keeping an eye on its health.

And as if to prove that the conditions really were suitable, in time, a second margay baby was born, then a third, and then a fourth, all with the same parents. In honor of the National Geographic journalist, the second was named Patty (Edmonds writes every so often to see how her namesake is doing). The other margays weren’t given names since Juan tries not to name animals that will be released into the wild. One of them did not survive (although it’s not clear why), but the rest are in good health. Not only that, but they are active and in some cases, even very aggressive, which Juan says is good news, a sign that they will do well when they are released into the wild.

They will be the first emissaries of a mission whose objective is to increase the wild margay population. Although postponed by the pandemic, their release is already a fact. They won’t survive in the dark, without knowing what happened to them: They will be fitted with telemetry collars (which have already been purchased) so that their development and survival in the country’s mountains can be monitored.

Margarita, meanwhile, will stay at M’Bopicuá Nature Park, too used to human contact to adapt to life in the wild. Her mission is more than accomplished. Thanks to her, a new generation of margays will leap free from branch to branch, keeping hope for the species in our country alive.


  • The Call of the Wild

    At the beginning of 2015, M’Bopicuá Nature Park welcomed a new and unexpected member to its family, which piqued the interest of National Geographic and started a journey of hope for one of our most charismatic cats.

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  • The Secret of Her Eyes

    How did the character in this story jump from a veterinarian’s pocket into the pages of one of the most famous magazines in the world? Discover the whirlwind career of Margarita, star of M’Bopicuá Nature Park.

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