Our project is primarily aimed at private owners who wish to have contact with their animal. Thus, it is extremely important to make sure that the animals given away by us are safe to handle. In order to guarantee this, we are developing a comprehensive safety concept based on the experience with training ambassador animals.
The first and most important step is to select a well-suited species. Species that are naturally tractable and non-aggressive towards humans require far less effort to train. They also are at a far lower risk of becoming unmanageable as they mature, or unexpectedly becoming aggressive.
Contrary to other big cats, most snow leopards show highly favorable behavioral traits, including lack of fear and aggression towards humans and a strong predisposition for affection. For our project, this means that the only required selective breeding will be to remove overly aggressive snow leopards from our population and to place them elsewhere (e. g. zoos). This will not only allow us to work very cost-efficiently, but also to maintain the conservation value of our animals by breeding for genetic diversity.
Rapport and socialization
A key aspect of our work will be to make sure that our snow leopards bond with people (i. e. highly enjoy and actively seek out human contact). This is highly important for human safety, as a snow leopard who loves being around humans is far less likely to attack them than one who merely tolerates human contact, or only enjoys it for a small period of time. It also has the advantage of making it easier to train the animals to properly behave and interact with humans. In order to achieve this kind of close bond, our handlers will spend as much time as possible with the animals, ideally being with them for up to 24 hours a day.
As it is important for us that our animals get along well with new people, we will also put considerable efforts into socializing them. The primary means of achieving this will be our animal encounter programs. We will mainly rely on cubs and subadults for these programs, as they are both more accepting of strangers and more attractive to visitors. This will also help us to offset the keeping costs for them, as we plan to hold all animals at our facility until they reach sexual maturity. Besides the encounter programs, we will also rotate handlers for each animal, in order to make sure that our snow leopards accept several people instead of bonding with just one person.
Training for proper behavior
As we will prepare our snow leopards for private ownership and human contact, it is very important to ensure proper behavior at all times. Since our main priority is human safety, we will train our snow leopards to treat people carefully and with respect. We will place a special emphasis on teaching our animals to never physically attack humans for any reason. Besides this, we will also take care to not allow any behavior that is not necessarily aggressive, but may be hurtful or dangerous to humans. This includes rough play using claws or teeth, or forceful pouncing which may knock a human over and injure him.
Resistance to stressful situations
The main difference between a professional and a private setting is that the average private owner is far more likely to make mistakes in handling than the average professional handler. As our project is aimed at private owners, we will have to ensure that our animals do not become dangerous even when subject to handling errors which cause stress to the animal.
In order to achieve this, we will accustom our snow leopards to situations that can easily occur in a private setting and lead to stress, fear or aggression on the part of the animal. This includes frightening situations such as a thunderstorm, stressful situations such as a delay in feeding, or improper behavior of the handler such as shouting without a reason.
Combining all these steps will result in animals which are not only suitable for human contact, but also safe in a private setting and while being handled by people without year-long prior experience. This will make them the ideal animal for private owners who wish to keep a big cat in order to have contact with it.