Bear Path Acres boasts exotic find

Published 9:35 am Saturday, August 22, 2009

FRANKLIN—Want to see a rare black leopard? You probably think you have to travel to a zoo in Norfolk or Washington, D.C., but you can save the gas and visit Southampton County’s Bear Path Acres Animal Education Center, just north of the state line on Route 258.

“It’s such a rare opportunity have a black leopard,” said Debbie Jeter, the president of Bear Path Acres. “The Norfolk zoo doesn’t even have one. We’re very, very fortunate.”

Born on Aug. 3 at DEW Animal Kingdom in Maine, the baby black leopard is less than 3 weeks old. Zookeepers there wanted to breed his mother one last time because of her age.

“He just opened his eyes four days ago,” Jeter said Thursday. Since black leopards are on the endangered species list and cannot be sold, officials at the animal kingdom had to choose a home for the baby leopard.

“They searched for a recipient and they chose us,” Jeter said. “For them to choose a small place like Southampton County, it’s astronomical.” She traveled to Maine for “intensive training” and bought the leopard home last week.

“We really want people to learn about these animals,” said DEW proprietor Bob Miner about his decision to send the leopard to Virginia.

The baby cat still doesn’t have a name.

“We’re asking for suggestions,” Jeter said.

Jeter said that he’s still toothless, and acts a lot like a human baby.

“Right now he just eats and sleeps,” she said.

Right now, the baby leopard is about the size of a small house cat, and Jeter can carry him in her arms, but that won’t be the case in a few months when he could weigh close to 200 pounds.

Leopards are most commonly found in areas of southern Asia and eastern and central Africa. Black leopards are commonly referred to as black panthers, but that’s a universal name that also applies to black jaguars.

Normally the baby leopard would’ve nursed for three days with his mother, but she had pregnancy complications and had to be sedated.

“Once she was sedated, they could no longer put the baby back with the mom, so he was only nursed for seven hours,” Jeter said. “I have been his mother since he was three days old.”

Visitors will have to wait a little longer to see “the first big cat” at Bear Path Acres. Jeter said that he isn’t ready to be introduced to the public yet.

“He’s got to be at least 4 weeks old before we bring him out to the public,” Jeter said. “We’ve got to protect him.”

The new leopard isn’t the only change at Bear Path Acres. It was recently granted 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, meaning that donations are now tax-deductible.

“This whole place was designed to be a nonprofit,” Jeter said. “The reason for that is I want it to continue long after I’m no longer able to take care of it.”

There are already fundraisers in the works to help build a new large habitat for the leopard. The first is a “baby shower,” where donors can buy items for the animal exhibit. The donors will then be invited to a private shower at Bear Path Acres where they can meet the leopard.

Bear Path Acres is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. They’re closed during the months of December, January and February, when Jeter takes her presentations into schools.

“I want every child in the community to have a chance to come out and learn about the animals,” she said. “Hopefully, they’ll grow up to care about the environment and want to protect it.”

With deer hunting season approaching this fall, Jeter said that she will accept meat donations from hunt clubs to help feed the new leopard.

She also encourages the public to come out and see the animals at Bear Path Acres.

“We’re always getting something new,” Jeter said. “We have everything from native wildlife, to exotics, to farm animals.”