THURMONT — In the wilds of Madagascar, fossa are known for their speed and incredible ability to leap from branch to branch to chase down lemurs — their dinner of choice. Unfortunately, there are fewer than 2,500 of these unique creatures, a close relative of the mongoose, left on the planet, with only about 25 in the U.S. In June, their numbers grew by two as Mossa and Sophina were born in captivity at the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo in Thurmont, just outside of Carroll County.
When fully grown, Mossa and Sophina will be able to leap 8 feet into the air, and climb up and down trees with their retractable claws. For now, these fossa babies must be content to leap several inches at a time, climb up and down the legs of their human foster mother and drink formula from a bottle.
Catoctin zoo veterinary technician Laurie Hahn is raising the fossa in her home after their mother rejected them, a common trait among first-time fossa mothers, particularly those raised in captivity, according to Hahn.
"I've been raising exotic baby animals that were sick or orphaned for 15 years, and this is part of what I do. I've never raised anything this rare and endangered before. They are noted to be very difficult to foster raise," Hahn said. "There's not a lot of documentation about how to raise fossa because they're so rare."
According to National Geographic, the adult fossa can weigh as much as 26 pounds and measure 6 feet from nose to tail tip. The animal has a cat-like face and paws similar to a squirrel with toes that allow them to grip tree trunks and climb headfirst up and down. Wild fossa are found exclusively in Madagascar, their unique features evidence of isolated island evolution. Hahn said she calls the fossa her "monkey-dog-cat-ferrets" after their blend of characteristics.
Taking care of the fossa is essentially like four full-time jobs, Hahn said. The fossa had to be fed every two hours for the first two weeks, then every three hours for the third week before eventually settling into a routine.
"I'm kind of losing my mind; I think human babies sleep longer than that. It was all up to me," Hahn said. "I would rather if something had gone wrong and the [fossa] babies crash sometime, I wanted to be the one that was there. I feel like I am the most qualified to be right here if anything were to happen."
Laurie's husband, Callan, said it's important to protect and preserve these animals.
"My family started this zoo in 1966, and there were a lot of animals in the wild then that are not around anymore," Callan said. "I very much wish my son could see a lot of the things I've seen. Restocking the wild population is definitely the long-term goal."
Mario Lawrence, general curator at the zoo, said Mossa and Sophina's parents are on loan from facilities in California and Texas. The parents and children are kept separated, and probably will not be brought together. According to Laurie, fossa can be temperamental in breeding, and males often require five miles of space for their habitat.
"Females often have up to five males she visits, and each male needs to have his own specific territory before they can successfully breed. Having kids around doesn't always successfully proliferate breeding," she said. "They're a lot like humans like that."
Laurie said each of the fossa babies quickly developed their own personalities.
"The male [Mossa] is definitely more shy; he wants to be more close to Mama," Laurie said. "The female [Sophina], though, she hits the ground running. She's very outgoing. Next to having my own son, who's 12, this is one of most special experiences to me. I think they're starting to respond to their names. They purr like a cat; they mew like a cat, and they have kind of a chuffing noise."
The fossa are neither nocturnal nor diurnal, but rather they nap and are active throughout the day and night. As fossa babies grow, they will transition from Laurie's homemade formula to cooked and then raw meat including chicken and beef. For enrichment and to keep them active with hunting, they will occasionally get whole rats or rabbits, Laurie said, though the lemurs they would eat in the wild are off the table.
In the wild, fossa are not known for being very personable. They are solitary creatures that will eat pretty much anything they can catch, including mice and wild pigs.
Foster-raised fossa often have a much friendlier disposition, according to Laurie. Though they'll grow to tolerate other humans in captivity, they will always treat their foster parents as their family.
Laurie said one of the problems between fossa and humans in the wild is fossa will often attack livestock, pitting them against Madagascan farmers.
"Madagascar in a lot of ways is still a third-world country, and for a lot of people, it's more important for them to survive and their children to eat than to protect the fossa," Laurie said. "Another issue is [fossa] are sensitive to canine distemper. Wild dogs will carry the distemper and infect them."
According to National Geographic, more than 90 percent of the Madagascan forest cover, the home of the fossa, has been destroyed. Lawrence, Catoctin's curator, said he would like the fossa to remain at the zoo, but their eventual placement will depend on where suitable mates can be found. Callan said the dream of zoos is to inspire a love of nature that influences people to move to protect endangered species.
"The ultimate goal, and the dream is that 20 years from now, some child who saw these babies as a kid, is now a millionaire and wants to help them out," Callan said. "The goal is to spark this love and touch somebody with this sense of positivity."
Reach staff writer Jacob deNobel at 410-857-7890 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Endangered Species in Carroll County
According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Service's record of Current and Historical Rare, Threatened and Endangered Species of Carroll County, Maryland, Carroll County is home to 14 different endangered species of animals and 27 species of plants, including the bog turtle, Indiana bat, triangle floater and Henslow's sparrow.
Jonathan McKnight, associate director with the Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Service, said Carroll County actually has the smallest risk of the loss of endangered species of any county in the state. Each species is categorized by a ranking of global and state rarity.
"People focus a lot on the species, but in a perfect world, we'd be using the species to understand the habitat," McKnight said. "There might be a strange little bug that is cool and important to protect, but as scientists, what is important is that it's living in a unique habitat. It's easier to protect a habitat than it is to protect a species."
McKnight said the Monocacy River is one of the most important habitats in Carroll County, and is home to the creeper — an endangered small mussel. McKnight said the creeper is interesting as an endangered species, but is more important as a signifier of environmental health.
"The creepers are amazing indicators of water quality. They don't like to live in streams that are heavily compromised," McKnight said. "What they're telling us is if they're still there in the water, that it isn't that bad yet. Most people would never encounter these; they'd see them and think here's a clam shell on the side of the stream, but they're really saying that this water is still good."
Carroll County Breaking News
McKnight said the department tracks and monitors endangered species and endangered species habitat. They keep a database of information, linked with databases across the continent tracking these animals and territories. In addition to monitoring, they work to preserve the habitats of endangered species.
"One of the most difficult things is protecting streams. If there was a panda in a den, we could put up a fence and protect the den," McKnight said. "With a stream, we have to protect everything that's upstream."
One of the ways McKnight said they work to protect streams is by incentivizing farmers to create wooded buffers around waterways. He said the buffer trees shade the water and keep it cool; prevent sediment from entering the streams; and, when they die and fall, create habitat for the species in the streams. In terms of land, McKnight said, Carroll provides an interesting case study in Maryland.
"Something you get a lot of in Carroll County is grassland habitat, because you have these hayfields that mimic prairie habitat," McKnight said. "We'll see grassland birds in Carroll that are commoner in places with wide expanses of prairies. These little pockets of habitat are very important."
McKnight said he believes it's our duty to protect the natural resources we live with.
"To me, I see it as a patriotic kind of thing. This is about the Teddy Roosevelt kind of thing, protecting the wilderness," McKnight said. "Most people think of the wild as Yellowstone or the tundra, but Maryland has amazing little patches of wilderness, even in Carroll. To me, that's part of our obligation to protect the wild places that were here before the pioneers ever came."