Leopards' favorite white oak roost taken down

200-year-old tree at Maryland Zoo dies

  • Most of a 200-year-old White Oak tree also known as the "Leopard Tree" is being taken down at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.
Most of a 200-year-old White Oak tree also known as the "Leopard… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
November 12, 2010|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

Visitors to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore have often had to search a towering white oak to spot the zoo's two prized African leopards, Amari and Hobbes, which frequently scaled the trunk and took to the branches.

The cats would each perch on a sturdy limb that gave the best view of a boardwalk filled with people and the neighboring enclosure co-habited by zebras, ostriches and two white rhinos.

It was as close to living in the wild as two cats could get. But by the end of Saturday, only a stump will remain of their favorite spot. While the cats remained locked in their lair this week, crews hoisted by a crane and tethered to safety lines cut down the 70-foot-tall tree.

The once-mighty oak, which predates the 1876 founding of the zoo by nearly a century, had lost much of its gusto. A large branch that fell onto the leopard's steel cage during February's snows revealed signs of serious decay and raised safety concerns. That limb left a 5-foot gash in a girder but did not damage the steel mesh that confines the leopards.

"That mesh provides a robust top to the exhibit," said Karl Kranz, the zoo's chief operating officer and vice president for animal programs. "The leopards could easily climb to the top of the enclosure, if they wanted to. We would not want leopards to be exploring the park on their own."

The zoo staff called in experts, who tested with a resistograph, the tree version of an EKG. The equipment ran an electric current through the trunk.

"It flat-lined, with too many impediments to its electric flow," said Kranz. "There was no way to save it."

To the inexperienced eye, the tree, one of the oldest in the 136-acre zoo in Druid Hill Park, looked healthy. Its canopy, filled with crimson autumn leaves, spread across 100 feet and long provided shade for the leopard habitat, which was built around it more than a dozen years ago. The oak's 25-foot-wide trunk and hefty limbs have given the two limber cats hours of exercise clawing and climbing, as well as comfortably high perches to hang out and scan their surroundings.

The tree "has had a good, long life," said Mark Bostic, foreman of Davey Tree, the tree-cutting contactor. "We tried to save it, but now it will be wood chips and nice-smelling firewood."

That one tree would probably yield 13 tons of logs and more than 15 cubic yards of chips, he said.

Some of the felled oak looked sound, but experts warned that the tree could have toppled over on its own, damaging exhibits, pathways and pavilions nearby. The labor-intensive operation will cost thousands of dollars, but zoo officials won't know the exact amount until the tree is down and completely cleared, Kranz said.

"This is not a happy occasion," said Kranz, who watched crews feed limbs into a chipper or load them into the bed of a 5-ton truck. "But the tree is so compromised and rotten, we have to take it down before it comes down on its own and causes more damage."

The fallen tree will have a second life as chips for the zoo paths and garden beds, firewood and maybe a few decorative pieces of oak furniture, if any woodworking artist can salvage useable material from among the branches.

Workers will shellac what remains of the trunk to deter further decay. It will stay in the leopard's habitat through the winter. In the spring, the familiar shade will not return, but there should be some plant growth — although that probably matters little to the two carnivores.

As soon as the crews are gone, the leopards, which are indigenous to South Africa, will be outside again. There will be no high branches to climb with their toys, a nod to the wild leopard's instinct of keeping their prey hidden in trees.

"It would be fair to say the leopards will notice the difference in the tree," Kranz said. "It has been an important piece of this exhibit."

It would be harder to say how bothered the cats might be, he said, adding that they are "pretty laid-back."

Replacing the tree could pose a problem. Any new planting would certainly be years away from the height and sturdiness needed to support a 150-pound leaping leopard. Zoo administrators are looking into the possibility of an artificial tree, one with heated limbs to make life a bit more comfortable for Amari and Hobbes. The leopards could snooze on warm branches, much "like a house cat sleeping near the radiator," Kranz said.

"We would have to make it look real," he said.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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