High Hopes for Smithsonian Sand Cats Thor and Lulu: Photos

Smithsonian's National Zoo staff have brought 1-year-old female Lulu in as a companion for Thor and now hope kittens are in their future.

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There's a new addition to Smithsonian National Zoo's Small Mammal House: a female sand cat named Lulu. She was brought in as a mate for the resident male Thor. The hope is that kittens will soon follow. Let's learn a bit about sand cats, starting with what they are, and then find out how the two are getting along.

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Here Thor says "Hello" in sand cat. As their name implies, sand cats live in deserts and are the only cats to live primarily in such environments. They live in deserts of Central and Southwest Asia, as well as those of North Africa. They're well suited to the hot and cold swings of temperature in the desert and will burrow into the sand to keep cool. Smithsonian researchers say they're tough animals to study, in part because their presence is hard to spot. They have fur on their foot pads and leave barely a trace in the desert sand.

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Here's Lulu striking a pose. (Hint; you can tell it's her from her oval-shaped face, compared to Thor, whose mug is a bit more horizontally inclined.) Early reports are that Lulu has already established herself as the more dominant and feisty of the two, while Thor is outgoing with zoo staff and is happy to try his best in training sessions.

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The cute cats are very active early in the morning, scooting around their enclosure and playing with their toys. Catch them at noon, though, and they're likely to be napping.

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Zoo staff say they help the cats keep up with their natural behaviors by hiding some of their food in puzzle feeders, as shown here. It keeps them busy remembering how to claw and dig at things to get a meal.

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If the stylish pair produces kittens, it will be the first experience of parenthood for either cat. Their introduction went "incredibly well," according to zoo staff. So there may well be babies in the offing! In fact, the zoo has recently separated Lulu from Thor, while veterinarians determine whether or not she is indeed pregnant. Thor's presence, say staff, could stress out Lulu if she's going to have kittens. Every little new kitten helps the species, too. Sand cats are currently listed as "Near Threatened" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's "red list" of threatened species.

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