Elmo and Sweetheart

The early history of the Zoo’s leopards reads like a television soap opera, with family spats, several generations, and even a May-December romance.
  • 1920s
  • 1950s

It all started with Elmo, a male who came to the Zoo in 1923 as an eight-month-old cub. His first mate unfortunately died, but then two females moved in, and he fathered cubs by both of them. However, the two mothers did not get along at all, and there was much growling and hissing. So one left with her cubs for another zoo.

Meanwhile, another male, a black (melanistic-phase) leopard that came to the Zoo in 1927, was set up with a new spotted beauty named Sweetheart. The keepers had hoped the pair would produce a litter of both black and spotted cubs; but that wasn’t to be. So, Sweetheart was jilted and had to move out, replaced by a black female leopard.

Sweetheart wasn’t alone for long, though: she moved in with Elmo and his mate. Apparently this living situation suited all three for several years. Eventually, however, Sweetheart found herself as Elmo’s one and only—even though she was 13 years younger than he was. She had several litters, described as “the finest husky young leopards we have ever seen.”

And “old Elmo,” as director Belle Benchley fondly called him? He spent most of his time up in the tree, where he would straddle a limb and hang all four legs over the sides, relaxed, with only his tail twitching from time to time. His cubs would crawl over him or rest against him as he snoozed in the sun. Not a bad way for the patriarch of a dynasty to spend his time!

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