HARLINGEN — If you think having your kids in the van for a road trip of 1,400 miles is tough, try it with an ocelot.
The Cincinnati Zoo’s ambassador ocelot Sihil (pronounced SEE-EL) is pretty used to her Texas vacations now that she’s been doing it for a decade.
Sihil has an extra-large carrier cage in a specially-equipped van, and she and her handlers stop to stay the night at cat-friendly motels on the trip to the Valley, says Colleen Nissen, cat ambassador trainer with the zoo.
“She actually really enjoys it, just like most of us in the car,” Nissen says. “She enjoys playing games, having snacks, looking out the window and taking naps.
“She’s very well-behaved and does what most of us do in the car,” she added.
Sihil will once again be in the Valley at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville tomorrow for the zoo’s annual Ocelot Conservation Day. The event lasts from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and is free after paying zoo admission.
Nissen said she thinks Sihil looks forward to her trips to what would be native habitat here in the Valley, even though the cat was born in captivity using a frozen embryo, which was then implanted into her surrogate ocelot mother.
“When we do get to Texas we have somebody who has known the program at Laguna (Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge), has known us for many years and she has a private ranch,” Nissen said. “So she’s usually where we stay when we’re actually in Texas, and with her large property, we are able to get Sihil out on walks in the mornings and evenings and between programs and exploring the scrub and all that good stuff.
“It’s funny, even though she doesn’t come from an area where there’s a lot of cactus, she learned her lesson once and never tried to mess with a cactus again,” Nissen added.
In South Texas, we’ve all been-there, done-that.
The ocelot outreach program is intended to bring attention to the plight of the endangered Texas subspecies of ocelot, which numbers somewhere around 80 animals in Cameron, Willacy and Kenedy counties. About 14 of those cats reside at the Laguna Atascosa refuge.
Sihil is nearly 18 years old now, and has spent most of her life in the Cincinnati Zoo’s cat ambassador program.
Putting on a show
Not surprisingly, she’s really good at taking charge of a show.
“People love to see her, not only just to be able to see a live ocelot and be able to learn about it, but they also I think really enjoy seeing that interaction that you have as an ambassador,” Nissen said. “So one of the things that we’re able to do is show off their natural climbing abilities.
“They can climb up, down, upside-down, all over the place,” she said.
Most of Sihil’s ambassadorial gigs are in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. The Texas road trip is the longest Sihil takes each year.
Before she hits the road, zoo veterinarians give Sihil a complete physical work-up to make sure she’s up for it.
But age is a resolute master, and sooner or later, Sihil is going to have to retire from being an envoy to ocelot lovers everywhere.
Her replacement — and he still needs a whole lot of training — is four-year-old Santos, another ocelot born at the Cincinnati Zoo.
“He does a lot of smaller-scale programs,” Nissen said. “This is honestly a lot of programming for one cat to do, and Sihil does it like a rock star.
“He’s still building his career,” she added. “He’s not rock-star status yet.”
WHAT — Ocelot Conservation Day
WHEN — Tomorrow, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
WHERE — Gladys Porter Zoo, 500 Ringgold St., Brownsville
COST — Free with zoo admission
INFO — There will be information tables about all things ocelot, craft activities for the kids, and special performances featuring live ocelot ambassador Sihil from the Cincinnati Zoo.