Niabi Zoo is going to the dogs in a big way, and a good way. Just not the kind of dogs we’re very familiar with.

The Coal Valley zoo — which is celebrating the Feb. 24 birth of two critically endangered Amur Leopard cubs — has won a $436,100 state of Illinois grant to create a new prairie dog exhibit, and they’re close to reaching a $500,000 campaign goal to build a display area for a new endangered species for the QC, the African Painted Dog.

Neither is likely to be ready for the public during the 2022 season, which opens April 18, zoo director Lee Jackson said Tuesday. Niabi has to do an environmental impact statement and complete a grant agreement with the state for the prairie dog exhibit, he said.

Prairie dogs are part of the squirrel family.

“Prairie dogs are small North American rodents,” Jackson said. “They live in colonies in the Great Plains, from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Painted dogs are East African canines, that sort of look like multi-colored foxes, much bigger with large ears. They’re really fascinating animals, with a highly developed social structure.”

Prairie dogs are members of the squirrel family and are related to ground squirrels and chipmunks, both of which live in Badlands National Park. The prairie dog species found in the Badlands is the black-tailed prairie dog, which also happens to be the most common prairie dog species overall, according to the National Park Service.

Prairie dogs tend to be around 14-17 inches in length and weigh 1-3 pounds each.

African Painted Dogs are usually two to three feet tall, 2.3 to 4 feet long and weigh 40 to 75 pounds. They do everything together as a pack, whether that’s hunting, resting, playing, or caring for pups, according to Niabi. Much of the dynamic social structure of Painted Dogs revolves around family.

Niabi Zoo plans to acquire about a half dozen East African Painted Dogs.

With designated babysitters, group feeding of the pups, or caring for injured pack members, the connection between pack members is strong, says Niabi’s website. “This story of family, teamwork, and relationships is vital to understanding these endangered carnivores and this relatable story can be an inspiration in our own lives.”

Since 2018, Niabi has been a partner with Painted Dog Research Trust (PDRT) to support their conservation efforts through use of satellite tracking collars and the development of anti-snare collars that can break snare wire to save the dog from the collateral effect of bush meat trapping.

Together, Niabi and PDRT incorporated field education to help change the public perception of the endangered Painted Dog, encouraging community members to help remove wire snares and impose driving speed limits to help protect the dogs, thus achieving meaningful conservation. Snare wire sculptures are made by community members and sold in Niabi’s Gift Shop to support conservation efforts.

To bring these colorful carnivores to the Quad Cities, much is needed to make species-appropriate habitat enhancements as well as create accessible viewing areas for guests to encounter this important species, Niabi says. Jackson noted Tuesday that they’re about $60,000 away from collecting the $500,000 needed for the painted dogs.

Donations can contribute to a dog den development, educational displays, a rock-enclosed water feature, clear viewing panels, and public viewing deck. Niabi has raised the money mostly from private donations, plus a generous $160,000 grant from the Carver Foundation, Jackson said. He doesn’t have a timetable for the project, since it hasn’t been put out to bid yet.

He is especially excited with the news about the recent birth of two critically endangered Amur Leopards. With fewer than 100 individuals left in the wild, this is the most critically endangered big cat in the world.

One of the new Amur Leopards at Niabi Zoo, Coal Valley.

While there are no other reports of captive breeding for this species yet this year, there were only seven Amur Leopards born in the U.S. for all of 2021.

“It’s quite rare, the role that Niabi plays and the reputation we have out there,” Jackson said. “We’re very excited about that; it’s really a great feather in our cap as well.”

In 2019, Niabi Zoo was chosen by the Amur Leopard Species Survival planning group as a partner, and it was decided that the zoo would receive and house one of several Amur leopards that would be brought in from zoos in Europe to breed with Niabi’s valuable male Amur Leopard “Jilin.” After lots of planning, and several COVID-related delays, they finally received “Iona” from the Thrigby Hall Wildlife Gardens in Great Britain on July 2021.

“We are honored and excited to have been able to contribute to such an important conservation program for such a critically endangered species,” Jackson said. “It speaks very well of the regard in which Niabi is held in the international conservation community, and to the expertise of the Niabi Zoo animal care staff.”

Both cubs (a male and a female) are thriving, but they don’t have names yet. Jackson said Niabi will not have a public contest to choose names.