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Endangered Kittens Are Born Using In-Vitro Fertilization

Black Footed Kittens

This photo, provided by Audubon Nature Institute, shows one of two rare African black-footed cats born Feb. 13, 2011 in New Orleans. (AP)

Two kittens recently born at the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species are more than adorable -- they are a success story. 

Eight years in the making, the two kittens were born after Audubon Center scientists used in-vitro fertilization to save the endangered African black-footed cat, a species rarely seen in captivity.

Scientists specializing in assisted reproduction began working on the black-foot cat project in 2003, when they collected sperm from a 6-year-old male cat named Ramses. Then, in March 2005, Ramses' sperm was frozen and later combined with an egg from Zora, a black-footed female living at the Audubon Center.

The embryos were frozen for almost six years before they were finally thawed and transferred via in-vitro fertilization to Bijou, the kittens' surrogate mother. She gave birth to two males on February 13, 2011.

The kittens are the first of their species to be born using this in-vitro technique.

“The science of assisted reproduction for endangered species has come a long way in the past fifteen years, but every time we can point to another ‘first’ in the field it gives us hope,” said Audubon Nature Institute President and CEO Ron Forman.

Scientists at the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species will continue to help the dwindling African black-footed population. According to Dr. Betsy Dresser, senior vice president for research at Audubon, the focus now is on keeping the genetics viable for the species and to continue doing research.

This rare and endangered species has a very low worldwide population. There are only 19 African black-footed cats in U.S. zoos and 40 worldwide, according to the Feline Conservation Federation.

As for the kittens, they won't get much bigger than they are now. The African black-footed cat stands at about 8 inches, is 22 to 25 inches long and weighs between 2 and 5 pounds. It is one of the smallest felines in the world.

The kittens are currently living happily at Audubon Research Center with their surrogate mother.