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Breaking News: Big Cats Can Distinguish Voices

White tiger Shakira II, rescued by Turpentine Creek from a roadside zoo in Colorado, greets Animal Curator Emily McCormack with vocalizations.

Recent studies on big cats shed light on their remarkable cognitive abilities, revealing their ability to differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar human voices. While this has been proven in domestic cats before, this was the first validation that big cats can also distinguish between individual vocalization. The term “big cats” describes a specific genus of felines known as Panthera. Unlike other cats, members of this genus have the unique ability to roar. Big cats also have very large territories and use their roars to communicate messages across a distance of over five square miles. Other cat species cannot roar. While some can make loud sounds, such as a cougar scream, they are not phonetically considered a roar. 

The new research on lions, tigers, and leopards suggests that big cats can discriminate between voices they know and those they do not. Scientists experimented using different voice recordings of “Good morning, how are you doing today.” They used this recording to test the reactions and behavioral responses of 24 animals, including ten different species. They also replicated this procedure between handraised captive animals and those raised in captivity by their mothers. The results show that the cats responded far more quickly, for longer, and with greater intensity to the familiar human voice than the four unfamiliar voices.

This research gives us a deeper understanding of big cats’ social dynamics and individual identities within their environments. It will help us continue improving our conservation approaches in the wild and, most importantly, to improve captive animal welfare. Our Animal Keepers can validate these findings at the Refuge through their unique relationships with individual cats. Animal Curator Emily McCormack remarks, “ Chief the lion will hear my voice before I can even see him and will start moaning and groaning with excitement while I am two habitats down. We have seen this throughout our time working with big cats, even with previous staff members visiting. During a visit from Dr. Kellyn, while she was achieving her doctorate in veterinary medicine, she was walking on the tour loop towards Karma the liger. Karma perched up from a nap, stalked her, and immediately ran up to the fence to greet her. This is the magic of the work we do to save animals. ” 


Simba, a lion rescued by Turpentine Creek, carols to the other lions at the Refuge from a distance.

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