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Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo’s Deputy Director Don Goff Guides the Nation’s Zoos in Ensuring the Survival of 18 Species of Big Cats

A visit to a zoo to see the big cats, and small– tigers, lions, leopards and ocelots, among others– is a thrilling moment for many families. What’s invisible to the public is the careful genetic strategy that ensures that endangered species will be around for a future we can’t yet foresee. Sadly, poaching, climate change and habitat destruction has caused the decline of a number of cat species in the wild. A science-based breeding program overseen by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and their Species Survival Plan (SSP) is the lifeline for many species in zoo collections.

The Species Survival Plan was designed in 1981 to oversee population management of select species in AZA-member zoos, and to enhance conservation of those species in the wild. Each of those programs, in turn, is overseen by a Taxon Advisory Group (TAG). There are 46 TAGs, each dedicated to a specific family of animals, from amphibians to wild pigs.  A lifetime devoted to caring for the cats has put Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo Deputy Director Don Goff in the Felid TAG catbird seat. He’s co-chaired the AZA’s Felid (cat species) TAG for the past five years.

“When an AZA-accredited zoo has an animal birth, like the Canada lynx kittens born at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo last spring, it’s hardly ever accidental. As delightful as zoo babies are to our guests, zoo births only occur when the SSP group for that species has determined that a member zoo has an opening for that animal, and the genetic line would benefit from more young animals to propagate the species,” explained Goff.

Goff was honored at the annual AZA meeting held last month in Indianapolis, where he received a Certificate of Recognition and Appreciation for his five years of leadership and commitment to excellence in the field of animal care and conservation as the Chair for the Felid Taxon

Advisory Group. Before becoming TAG chair, he has served as SSP Chair for the Canada Lynx, as Vice Coordinator for the Tiger SSP/generic tigers (tigers with untraceable or mixed bloodlines), and is currently Vice Chair for the Canid (canine) TAG.

The TAGs are responsible for a Regional Collection Plan, which analyzes what species will be part of the group and placed in member zoos, oversees research on declining populations, produces educational materials and training courses for zookeepers on animal husbandry, including safety, exhibit design, nutrition, and reproduction, and oversees the management of SSPs. A typical TAG includes advisors dedicated specifically to issues such as science, population management, reproduction, medical concerns, and permits (dealing with the import/export of live animals across state and national lines.)

“We transfer cats (and other animals) for breeding purposes,” said Goff, “or for exhibit purposes—for instance, the Buffalo Zoo is a new institution for the Canada lynx SSP and they have no lynx in their collection, which is why our lynx kittens are going there.”

“We may move cats if a zoo is doing away with an exhibit, or if a move is needed temporarily due to a renovation,” he continued. “Or you can have cats that don’t get along—two sisters, or two brothers, for instance. It happens more frequently with single sex pairs.”

It is extremely rare for a zoo to acquire felids from the wild, Goff said. “We may move captive-bred cats to or from other zoos, or even other regions like Europe or Asia if we have a population that is declining, or growing beyond our capacity. You want to have a pyramid of animals, with fewer older cats at the top, and a strong base of young, healthy cats to ensure the sustainability of the species. “

Goff brings a lifetime of experience to the field. He was first employed at Kings Dominion in Doswell, Virginia, where he began as a keeper by cleaning the elephant and rhino exhibits. He rose in the ranks to a Curator, overseeing the entire collection, including 30 lions and nine tigers; he then moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where he was Curator of Mammals. For the past 23 years, he has made his home at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo.

He’s a fascinating storyteller, with information to share on current research on Snow Leopards with low sperm counts, assisted reproduction in threatened species, and how to check for hormone levels in big cats (it’s present in fecal matter.) Most of his days, however, are spent overseeing the quality of life for the 300 animals in Bridgeport. The Beardsley Zoo animals aren’t aware of the level of science that goes into their daily care, but they don’t need to be. Goff has that covered.  

Goff currently lives in Milford with his wife, Janet, a vet tech and experienced exotic cat handler, three dogs, and two cats (the house cat variety).