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Mazal Tov! Ultra-rare Sand Cats at Israeli Zoo Have Kittens

Israel welcomes five kittens born to a pair of ultra-rare sand cats at the Safari Park in Ramat Gan

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Sand cats give birth at The Safari, Ramat Gan, Israel on Monday.
Baby sand cats at the Safari, Ramat Gan, Israel on MondayCredit: Yam Siton
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Congratulations! Seriously. Five kittens have been born to a pair of ultra-rare sand cats at the Israeli Safari Park in Ramat Gan.
How rare is the sand cat (Felis margarita)? Surviving, barely, in isolated blasted deserts of Africa and Asia, around 10,000 of the tiny felines are believed to still exist in nature and another 178 in zoos, the Safari stated.

Actually the successful parturition brings the number of sand cats in zoos to 183, Safari spokeswoman Sagit Horowitz agreed.
Five is a healthy-sized litter for a feline. This crew was born to mother sand cat Sabiyah, who arrived with that name from France, and father sand cat Marib, who hailed from Sweden. What their names mean, the Safari does not know.

Sand cats give birth at The Safari, Ramat Gan, Israel on Monday.Credit: Yam Siton
Sand cats give birth at The Safari, Ramat Gan, Israel on Monday.Credit: Yam Siton

The kittens are now a month old and all survived, which is quite extraordinary for a first litter of felids. It is somewhat less extraordinary for a litter of house cats. But for wild cats, especially ones procreating for the first time, it is an achievement, explains Safari Park spokeswoman Sagit Horowitz.

Sand cats give birth at The Safari

Actually technically this was not Sabiyah's first birth, it was her second, but the first litter died quickly. This time she nailed it.

"The keepers say she's an amazing mother. She's feeding them, cleaning them, and hiding them," Horowitz says – the last being a crucial element of parenthood in the wild sand cat.

Sand cats give birth at The Safari, Ramat Gan, Israel on Monday.Credit: Yam Siton
Sand cats give birth at The Safari, Ramat Gan, Israel on Monday.Credit: Yam Siton

Sabiyah was flown from France over a year ago but was preceded in Aliya by Marib of Sweden, who has been in Israel about two years.
As is usual with the wonder that is cats, at first sight, there was no love. In fact the Safari staff, being experienced, kept them separate, as anybody sane does when introducing cats. But they were in adjacent enclosures and as they began to take what seemed to be convivial interest in one another, they were put together. "They got along famously," Horowitz recalls fondly. "It took awhile though," she adds.

The staff observed that when they began to get along really well – "We saw the mating, and saw she had become pregnant and given birth and had hid the kittens," Horowitz says.

Sand cats give birth at The Safari, Ramat Gan, Israel on Monday.Credit: Yam Siton

Naturally, when Sabiyah began to evince gravidity, Marib was removed from her enclosure. Following the birth, when the staff decided it was appropriate and that she was confident in her parenting (a euphemism for "would protect them if he decided to kill them"), they allowed him to return.

Why allow him to return at all, at this stage? Because it's nice and more interesting to have company, Horowitz explained. Cats are far more complicated than people realize and some like company. Some don't.

For those keeping track, the Safari used to have two other sand cats, Rotem the lady and Sela the Swede. They died of old age. All five kittens will, as they grow and mature, join the global effort to breed the sand cat and save it from final extinction – a fate they met in Israel and the rest of the Middle East a very long time ago. Except in Ramat Gan.

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