Here’s how Gaia, the cute, deadly black-footed cat, is settling in

Gaia turns 10 months old this week and, like any growing youngster, her likes and dislikes have started to become clear.

Favorite food? Whole chicks, served dead.

Favorite toy? A tire with a ball inside.

Favorite activity? Gnawing on a bone.

In her new home at Utah’s Hogle Zoo, Gaia the black-footed cat has quickly found her groove.

“We can tell she’s going to be feisty,” said Tammy Walling, animal care supervisor at the zoo’s small animal building and one of Gaia’s keepers.

The black-footed cat’s big-eyed gaze and killer instinct drew her fans from across the country this winter, after she moved into her new exhibit at the Salt Lake City zoo. Her cuteness — as one of the smallest cats in existence — and savagery — as a member of the deadliest-to-prey cat species on Earth — was a winning combination for a little internet fame.

She enchanted Washington Post readers, who commented: “Flawless.” “Bruce Lee, Lawrence Taylor, and the looks of Audrey Hepburn.” “THIS is the most adorable wild animal ever!” “Can we get one at the National Zoo to replace the pandas??”

So one month into her residency in Salt Lake City, The Post checked in with Gaia’s keepers to hear about how she’s settling in — and to get new cat pics.

The world’s deadliest cat is deceptively cute. Meet Gaia.

Video shows Gaia the black-footed cat with an enrichment toy. (Video: Hogle Zoo)

Gaia is playing like a kitten, acting animated when zoo guests visit and getting braver about venturing out of her cave. She was shy when she first reached Utah from the Texas wildlife center where she was born — but not anymore.

“She’s definitely developing a personality,” Walling said in an interview this month.

Black-footed cats do not live in the wild in the United States, and habitat loss in Africa has diminished their native numbers. Gaia and about 28 other cats in U.S. institutions are part of an effort by conservationists to preserve and diversify the species, which is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Gaia’s traits and kitten-like size help the public relate to her — who doesn’t want to be cute but deadly, or want to imagine their house cat is? — and help raise awareness not only about her species but about African habitats under threat, her zookeepers said.

“People really love this cat and are connecting with her, and [it’s] giving them a chance to connect with wildlife as a whole,” Walling said.

Gaia’s day begins in the early morning, when zoo staff turn on the lights in the small animals building. She’s “very disgruntled” when the lights come on, but she always gets up and starts engaging with the staff, watching as they perform their morning tasks.

Then… it’s mealtime. In addition to a specially formulated diet, Gaia gets to eat prey she would find in the wild: small and large rodents, rats and chicks.

“All three of the black-footed cats have seemed to really enjoy any of the prey items that are a little bit larger, that they can kind of rip up,” Walling said. “She seems to enjoy the chicks.”

Gaia the black-footed cat checks out an enrichment toy at the Hogle Zoo. (Video: Hogle Zoo)

The zoo opens at 10 a.m. Gaia often spends the morning lying down at the front of her enclosure, saying hello to passersby. She appears to enjoy watching zoo visitors, Walling said — and sometimes stalks them.

“It means she’s settling in and feeling more comfortable,” Walling said.

When not lazing around or stalking visitors, Gaia gets “enrichment” — zookeeper-speak for toys and activities that draw out her wild behaviors and natural instincts. Once a week, she gets her favorite thing — a bone.

“She really enjoys dragging the bone around and getting a little bit of meat off it,” Walling said.

She also occupies herself for long periods trying to catch a ball inside a tire, Walling said. And she hunts for hidden food — made of an appetizing mixture of ground bone, skeletal muscle and organs — and sharpens her claws on scratching posts.

“She’s a kitten, so she really enjoys batting things around,” Walling said.

Shelly Peterson’s two kids, 5 and 9, were enchanted by Gaia when they visited the zoo at the end of December.

“We looked in there and saw this little tiny cat,” said Peterson, of American Fork, Utah. “She was just interested in all the people that were there, and she was just watching us with her big eyes. My kids are like, ‘Ohh, she’s so cute.’”

Gaia was new to her exhibit, which was still partially covered by curtains, Peterson recalled, but she “perked up and was looking at us” when the family stood by her window.

“She’s so cute,” Peterson said. “So tiny. Little itty bitty.”

Gaia’s keepers have high hopes for her potential as a mother. Her role in the species’ conservation will be to mate with Ryder, the zoo’s 3-year-old male black-footed cat.

Gaia already reminds zookeepers of her grandmother, Sanura, who lived at the zoo until her death last year at 18. She has become braver each week and is very animated, said Bob Cisneros, Hogle Zoo’s associate director of animal care.

“I love that even as a young cat, she’s already developing a personality that we’re seeing,” Walling said. “It’s giving us a glimmer of things that we’re hoping to see [from her] as a parent. We’re hoping she’s going to be a really good mom and carry on that feistiness with the kittens.”

Gaia won’t be introduced to Ryder until she’s mature, but zoo staff are already working on getting them comfortable: They introduce Gaia to Ryder’s scent by putting cardboard in his enclosure, then moving it to her exhibit.

Next, they will use a common area at different times; for instance, Ryder will use the room, leave, and Gaia will come in for “a very strong olfactory introduction,” Cisneros said. Once Gaia matures, supervisors will start thinking about introducing the pair, after which they would spend 45 days together in hopes of making a match.

If that doesn’t work, they’ll start another 45-day attempt.

“Gaia and Ryder are young,” Cisneros said, “and sometimes it takes them a minute to kind of figure it out.”

Gaia the black-footed cat interacts with an enrichment toy at the Hogle Zoo. (Video: Hogle Zoo)

Smitten with Gaia? You definitely can’t take her home. But there are ways to help her species — and others — survive in the wild. And, in fact, motivating people to care is part of her purpose.

Cisneros recommended that people who are moved by Gaia become a member of their local zoo, take everyday steps to help the environment, such as recycling, or donate to a conservation or wildlife organization.

People wanting to donate should seek out “reputable conservation organizations that work directly in Africa supporting the work of local organizations,” said Arend de Haas, director at the African Conservation Foundation. De Haas recommended looking for projects related to habitat protection, anti-poaching efforts, community engagement and wildlife research and monitoring.

“People are often more motivated to take action when they can relate to a specific species,” de Haas said, “and understand how their conservation efforts can benefit entire ecosystems.”

Cisneros also recommended reducing consumption, reusing and repurposing products, recycling and refusing to use items that might be bad for the environment — he won’t use foam cups, for instance — calling it “the cheapest way you can do conservation work.”

Publicizing information about vulnerable species — while making it clear that wild animals are not pets — is important for forwarding conservation efforts, experts said. Modern zoos play a scientific role, said Dan Ashe, president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the independent accreditor of zoos in the United States.

His organization has more than 300 programs and consortia aimed at helping species survive, including the consortium that manages Gaia and her fellow black-footed cats. Programs like those, Ashe said, have helped preserve species that otherwise would have gone extinct.

“We’re constantly trying to get people to understand what’s happening to animals in nature,” Ashe said, noting that public awareness campaigns have benefited the welfare of species such as elephants, wolves, tortoises and bats.

“All the storytelling that we can get with the public is helpful, because by and large we as human beings are increasingly disconnected from nature and the impacts of our behaviors on nature.”

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