Lion Updates

April 16

We have an animal care update from our Great Cats team. Last week, one of our African lion cubs—a male born to Shera and Luke—had not gained as much weight as expected and was exhibiting some lameness in his right leg.

The good news is that he has gained weight over the weekend! Although he continues to have a bit of a limp, it hasn’t held him back! He plays with his siblings and isn’t shy about nudging them out of the way when it’s time to nurse. His weight gain and ability to interact normally with mom and siblings are encouraging signs, but his limp remains a concern. Keepers and vets will continue to monitor the cub’s weight and movements closely in the coming weeks.

A note to Lion Cub Cam watchers: Shera has moved her cubs out of the maternity area of the building and closer to the rest of the pride where they are becoming acquainted with their aunt and half siblings. We will update you as the cubs reach new milestones.

April 10

Last week, keepers started introductions between Shera and Naba’s cubs! Keepers watch these interactions closely in the event that the cubs need to be separated. Fortunately, everyone has been getting along fine.

As part of the Zoo’s animal management plan for big cats, African lions are weighed routinely—at least once every two days. At this age, the cubs are expected to gain between 150 to 300 grams every 48 hours. On Monday, Shera’s cubs had all gained weight. During the Wednesday weigh-in, however, one of the male cubs had not gained any weight. Keepers performed an impromptu body-check on the cub and discovered that his right-front leg was a bit lame. Because interactions between the lions have all gone smoothly, keepers did not suspect that the play dates played a role in the cub’s lameness. The lack of weight gain prompted keepers to call Zoo veterinarians for a consultation.

Vets examined the cub, who had no external wounds. Radiographs of the cub’s leg showed no broken bones or muscle injuries. The lameness appears to be due to a swollen elbow joint. Vets obtained a blood sample, and initial reports found a high white blood cell count and a low red blood cell count. Vets administered antibiotics and iron supplements and the cub will continue on antibiotics for several days. The cub is not quite out of the woods yet, but thanks to the early action and assessments by animal care staff, he has the best chance possible. Keepers and vets will continue to monitor him closely.

For now, his attitude is “good and spunky” according to staff. He’s rejoined his family. You can see him and his siblings on the cub cam.

March 7, 2014

Today, Nababeip’s two cubs received their second routine veterinary exam. At almost a month and a half old, they weigh between 16 and 17 pounds. They both got a clean bill of health! Keepers also had the opportunity to get a first hands-on look at Shera’s four cubs. We were able to get individual weights on the cubs, and give them each an identifying shave mark. Shera’s cubs weigh between four and five pounds at just under a week of age, and their eyes have recently opened!

This is the earliest our keepers have ever been able to weigh lion cubs. Shera’s five-day-old cubs had very similar weights to Naba’s cubs when they were six days old. The last time Shera and Naba gave birth, keepers waited until each litter was at least two weeks old before weighing them. Obtaining weights and collecting lots of information about the cubs early on helps keepers learn more about what is normal for lion cubs.

Last week, keepers at the Great Cats exhibit put a GoPro camera in the den with Naba’s cubs while mom was outside enjoying the sunshine. At first, the girls were a bit wary of the cam—hissing and stepping gingerly around it. Within 20 minutes, however, they felt comfortable going right up to the cam and even knocked it over!

Adding a novel items to the lions’ environment is part of the Zoo’s enrichment program. Not only do they physically and mentally stimulate the Zoo’s residents, but also encourage animals to use their natural abilities and behaviors in new and exciting ways. Enrichment is an integral part of daily care and helps keepers ensure the Zoo’s animals have a high quality of life.

March 4 Update

March came in like a lion—four lions, to be exact— as 9-year-old African lion Shera gave birth to a litter at the Great Cats exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Their delivery March 2 spanned a seven-hour period, from 8:27 a.m. to 3:17 p.m. These cubs are the second litter for Shera and the fifth for 8-year-old father, Luke. Recently, Luke also sired 10-year-old Nababiep’s two female cubs born on January 24.


Animal care staff watched Shera give birth via a closed-circuit webcam and continue to monitor the family. The first cub was born at 8:27 a.m. and appeared active and healthy. At 9:03 a.m., Shera delivered her second mobile cub. The third cub was born at 11:09 a.m. and the fourth at 3:17 p.m. The Zoo’s animal care team has been closely observing the family throughout Sunday and Monday’s snowstorm. All four cubs appear to be nursing, moving and vocalizing well.

“Shera successfully raised her previous litter of four in 2010, so we’re cautiously optimistic that these cubs will thrive,” said Kristen Clark, and animal keeper at the Great Cats exhibit. “Like any new mom, she needs some peace and quiet to bond with her cubs, so we’re giving her the solitude she needs. From what we’ve observed on the cam, her behaviors are right on point, and there’s no need for us to intervene.”

The National Zoo participates in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ African Lion Species Survival Plan, a program that matches individual animals across the country for breeding in order to maintain a healthy, genetically diverse and self-sustaining population. The birth of these cubs marks the next step in building a pride at the Zoo. The pride social structure makes lions unique among the great cats, many of which are solitary animals. African lion populations in the wild have dwindled by 30 percent during the past 20 years as a result of poaching, disease and habitat loss. They are considered a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“At this time, both mothers have a den space to bond with their cubs that is separated from each other and Luke,” said Rebecca Stites, animal keeper. “In the wild, a lion may take up to six weeks to introduce her cubs to the rest of the pride, so we are emulating that process. Once Shera’s behavior indicates that she’s comfortable with the cubs meeting their half-siblings, aunt and dad, we’ll begin introductions. Our aim is to bring all nine lions together.”

Shera’s cubs will not be on exhibit until early summer, which will give the Zoo’s animal keepers and veterinary team time to examine them. Nababiep and her cubs will also remain indoors until late spring but can be viewed via the Lion Cub Cam on the Zoo’s website. National Zoo visitors can see another set of cubs—7-month-old Sumatran tigers Bandar and Sukacita—on exhibit every day weather permitting.

February 20 Update

We want to let you know that for the immediate future all lion cub cams will be going offline. The good news is, when they come back online, we hope it’s to give you a look at new lion cubs! Shera’s due date is imminent, and our team is preparing for a new litter of cubs.

As we mentioned last week, Naba and her two cubs have access to several dens at the Great Cats exhibit. In the past few days, the family has elected to move to a den that does not have a webcam. Thanks for your patience and we will continue to keep you posted.

February 11 Update

Healthy and well fed! That was the ruling animal care staff gave to Nababiep’s two-and-a-half-week-old cubs during their first veterinary exam yesterday.

Photo by Karen Abbott, Smithsonian's National Zoo

The complete physical involved listening to the cubs’ hearts and lungs; checking their mouths, eyes, legs, and feet; and feeling their bellies. Both cubs weigh in at about nine pounds. Keepers gave the cubs a touch-up on their identifying shave marks (one on the shoulder, the other on the base of the tail). As the cubs continue to grow and develop, animal care staff will be able to determine whether we have boys, girls, or one of each!


February 6

A few days ago, African lion mother Naba spent some time away from her cubs and enjoyed a special oxtail treat with her sister Shera. Keepers took the opportunity to get their first in-person look at the cubs. Their report: they are adorable!

Photos by Karen Abbott, Smithsonian's National Zoo

In order to distinguish the two, keepers shaved a small mark on each cub. The smaller, who weighs 7.6 pounds, has a shave mark on his/her left shoulder. The larger cub, who weighs 8.26 pounds, has a small shave mark at the base of his/her tail. Animal care staff have not yet verified the cubs’ sex. (Just shy of two weeks old, the cubs’ genetalia have not fully developed.)

When Naba returned to the cubbing den, she groomed and nursed the cubs. She didn’t show any signs of stress. Keepers gave her the option to move the cubs to a different set of cubbing dens, but Naba choose to keep them where they were.

January 27, 2014

Lioness nursing two cubs

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s Great Cats team celebrated the arrival of its first litter of African lion cubs in four years. On Jan. 24, the Zoo’s 10-year-old lion Nababiep gave birth to three cubs—two surviving—in an eight-hour period. These cubs are the third litter for Nababiep and the fourth for 8-year-old father, Luke.

Animal care staff watched Nababiep give birth via a closed-circuit webcam and continue to monitor the family. The first cub was born at 3:58 a.m. and appeared active and healthy. Five hours later at 8:51 a.m., Nababiep delivered her second cub, but it was stillborn. The third cub was born at 11:24 a.m. and appeared active and healthy.

Below is a short video clip featuring the brand new cubs.

Tiger Cubs Born

Sumatran tiger Damai gave birth to two Sumatran tiger cubs on Monday evening, August 5, 2013! These cubs are a conservation success. Sumatran tigers are critically endangered in the wild, so every cub counts.

The cubs are on exhibit for several hours most days, weather permitting, beginning at 10 a.m.! Read more.

May 15, 2013

Our young lion John is growing up and moving on! Early Tuesday morning he left the National Zoo for his new home at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The Cincinnati Zoo was chosen for him based on a recommendation from the Species Survival Plan. When John and his brothers and sisters were born in 2010, they were the most genetically valuable African lion cubs in North America. Now he will continue to help keep the population of lions in human care genetically diverse. John was named after former Zoo director John Berry, who was instrumental in helping the Zoo build its lion pride.

John now weighs 380 pounds and is taller at the shoulder than his father Luke. Luke and John have been on exhibit together for much of the past few months since Aslan and Baruti left the Zoo for Calgary. Luke has been very tolerant of John and the two have gotten along well, but keepers have been separating them in preparation for John’s move.

To ensure the move goes as smoothly as possible, keepers have been working with John, training him to sit in his travel crate. He has had access to his travel crate over the past few weeks, allowing him to get comfortable with it. One of our lion keepers and our curator of Great Cats traveled with John to his new home. After John has settled in they will return, and keepers will work on many of the same things with females Lelie and Lusaka in preparation for their move to a new home.

January 15, 2013

Things in the lion house have been fairly quiet this winter. When temps drop to freezing, we usually let the lions decide where they want to play throughout the day. With the colder air moving into DC this January, the lions have been choosing to hang-out inside for much of the day. We do have a few updates that we are excited to share though!

A couple of the keepers from Calgary Zoo visited in early January and reported that Aslan and Baruti are doing well. They made their official debut to the public on January 3. It sure is cold in Calgary right now, but the boys are having fun romping around in the snow. Even with all their charm and good looks, it has not been an easy task to win over Calgary's resident lionesses. Although it has been a slow process (as is to be expected when introducing two social groups of lions), Zoo visitors there have delighted in catching a glimpse here and there of all four lions hanging out together! Good luck to Calgary Zoo as they continue introductions!

We have also received word that Zuri and Fahari are doing well and enjoying the mild weather in Santa Barbara! Their names have been changed to Neema (Zuri) and Kadi (Fahari). Before long, the keepers in Santa Barbara will be introducing these girls to their resident male, Chadwick.

Additionally, we have some news about a future move for Lusaka and Lelie. The lion Species Survival Plan (SSP) has recommended that they move to the Buffalo Zoo. We’ve spoken with Buffalo and all agree that this will be a wonderful move for our girls! We’re not packing their bags just yet though—we’ll wait until spring before transporting them.

Last but not least, we have some news about John, too. The lion SSP has recommended that John be introduced to a lioness that is currently living at the St. Louis Zoo. The questions are where and when will they meet? John won’t be going to St. Louis and the lioness from St. Louis won’t be traveling to DC, so the SSP is working on locating a future home for the pair.

Although the winter weather is keeping most Washingtonians indoors these days, spring will be here before we all know it. We’ve made a change to our “meet-a-keeper” schedule. Instead of our usual chit-chat around the lion/tiger circle, we have started offering enrichment demonstrations. Join us on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays at 1 p.m. for enrichment demonstrations (weather permitting) and stick around to ask any questions you may have!

October 15, 2012

Last week, we bid a bittersweet farewell to Zuri and Fahari, as they left for their new home at the Santa Barbara Zoo. Their new keepers traveled to DC to meet the girls and accompanied them during their flight back to sunny California—via FedEx!

Zuri and Fahari traveled in the same crates that Aslan and Baruti rode in when they moved to the Calgary Zoo. Each crate has a built-in water bowl, catch-pan for urine to drain into, and plenty of ventilation. As you can see in the picture, the crates attach to the same lion chute that leads the cats outside each day. Once the crates arrived back to National Zoo a week before they left, we promptly started giving the girls a chance to check them out. Zuri and Fahari were very curious about the crates and we easily implemented multiple daily crate-training sessions. Zuri seemed to find it entertaining to duck down in the crates and scare the pants of her keepers as we passed by, rushing from the back of one crate to the front of the other while vocalizing. That’s lion humor for you! As for crate training, our organized plan was this: Fahari walks through the first crate and into the second crate, and then Zuri enters the first crate only. The reality was that both girls built a positive association with the crates and so both went bounding in when they received access. In any case, they were separated for their travel and were reunited at Santa Barbara Zoo. They arrived safely!

As is standard, the girls will be quarantined for 30 days. Afterward, they will emerge into a world where the daily average temperature is 64 degrees year-around and they will have a tranquil view of the beachfront! The Santa Barbara Zoo is already home to an adult male lion. The three will eventually build a pride of their own.

September 22, 2012

It’s hard to believe that another year has passed since the birth of Naba and Shera’s cubs, yet here we are planning their second birthday celebration! Lelie, Zuri, Fahari and John turned two years old on August 31; Lusaka will be turning two on September 22. We’d love to invite everyone to join us for a birthday celebration! (The time and date have not yet been determined so stay tuned for more information). Instead of blowing out candles, our youngsters will be chowing down on custom-made cakes specially designed by the Zoo’s Department of Nutrition.

The birthday celebration is also a great time to see all six of our girls together for the last time—word has it that another Zoo may be ready to welcome Zuri and Fahari this fall. In preparation, we are starting to provide them with time away from the rest if the family. You may notice Zuri and Fahari relaxing together in the big yard during the morning, and playing in the small yard with the rest of the pride during the afternoon. Over the next few weeks Zuri and Fahari gradually spend more and more time on their own. Before they leave National Zoo we want to be sure they are comfortable as a two-some.

Speaking of farewells, we learned that Aslan and Baruti finished their quarantine period at the Calgary Zoo and are currently in the process ofmaking friends with theirlionesses. Once they win-over the Calgary, they will all be going into the main lion yard as a pride! No breeding plans for the boys with these girls, but we are excited that they will have some additional companions soon.

July 15, 2012

With the lion cubs second birthdays rapidly approaching, we are starting to receive official recommendations from the African lion Species Survival Plan (SSP) about where the youngsters will start their adult lives.

We recently confirmed that Aslan and Baruti will be heading to Calgary Zoo this summer. The date of their departure has not been determined just yet, but could be as early as July. There are several factors that need to be considered before locking down a travel date: permits for the furry kiddos to travel internationally, booking of climate-controlled transportation for the duration of the trip, and the successful separation of Aslan and Baruti from their half-brother, John.

The separation process is already in progress. Separation process? Although we’d like the boys to have as much time together as possible before a departure takes place, we think it’s important to leave enough time to gradually separate these bonded boys to minimize their anxiety. We started about two weeks ago by separating John from Aslan and Baruti overnight, in adjacent dens where they could visit at a howdy door. Next, John was moved to a den that was adjacent to Luke instead of his brothers—and the boys were reunited during the day. Last week, Aslan and Baruti started spending part of their time outside alone and part of their time outside reunited with John. John handled the indoor separation well, but seems a little uncertain about the daytime separation from his half-brothers. If you have visited the lions lately you may have observed John pacing near the door or calling to his brothers. We feel confident that John will adjust to the change soon and are pleased that Luke continues to appreciate the company of his oldest son. The next logical step left in the separation process will be a complete separation, but we’ll wait for John to become more comfortable with the current situation before continuing with the process.

The departure of Alsan and Baruti will be bittersweet, to say the least. It was amazing to have witnessed their first moments of life and to have watched them grow into beautiful young adults (technically these guys are considered “sub-adults” for another couple of years). That said, we know that the next step of their lives is an exciting one: they are going to be introduced to two females at Calgary Zoo and will hopefully build a pride of their own someday. As soon as we confirm the date of their departure, we’ll let everyone know.

The SSP also believes that another zoo may be ready to welcome Zuri and Fahari in the near future. Stay tuned for information about where they may go!

Wondering what the African lion Species Survival Plan is? It’s basically a managed breeding and transfer program for the 340 African lions living in facilities across North America which are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Information about each individual (including pedigree) is tracked by one person, called a studbook keeper. This information is sent to a population biologist for analysis. The population biologist then works with the African lion species coordinator to develop the breeding and transfer plan for the year. This plan summarizes the current demographic and genetic status of the population and identifies breeding or non-breeding recommendations with consideration given to each lions social and biological needs as well transfer feasibility. These recommendations are designed to maintain or increase a healthy, genetically diverse and demographically stable population of lions. Many of the animal species you visit at the National Zoo are part of a SSP of their own!

February 28, 2012

Lion separations have been going smoothly, and we are ready to take the last step!

Several weeks ago, Baruti, Aslan, and John started spending the night in their own set of dens, next to the females. Luke had moved a little farther away from the rest of the pride, but has been able to walk through a chute during the night to visit with the juvenile males and females at their respective howdy doors. During a few hours each day, our juvenile boys were reunited with their mother, aunt, sisters, and cousins in the yard. Without any signs of broken hearts, we felt the pride was ready for us to initiate part two of the separation process.

On February 6, the juvenile boys had their last day outside with their mothers—although they continued spending a few hours each morning with their sisters and continued to spend time with Luke. Since then, Naba has been indifferent, but Shera appeared relieved and relaxed. No surprise—Shera’s been showing signs of aggression towards the boys for several weeks now—a signal that she’s ready for them to move on!

Monday (February 20), we felt that the lions were ready to take the final step. The juvenile females will now be kept with Naba and Shera until we receive recommendations on which zoo to send them. Our goal for the juvenile males is to keep them with Luke for as long as we can. As the young males continue to develop and mature, there will come a time when Luke begins to view them more as adult male competition and he will no longer tolerate their presence. At that point we will be forced to separate them from their father so that nobody gets seriously hurt.

So when you visit the lions during the coming weeks, you’ll either see Naba, Shera with the juvenile girls outside or you’ll see Luke and the juvenile boys outside (and there is the chance that you’ll see Luke alone outside or the three juvenile males outside). Some days you may see both groups outside, but in separate yards. We’ll be sure to keep you posted about changes among the pride.

January 15, 2012

Ever since the lion cubs celebrated their first birthdays, things among the pride have remained status quo—but changes are on the horizon. Don’t worry, no one is leaving right now. In fact, we don’t have any relocation recommendations for the youngsters just yet. However, if you’ve visited during the past several months you have probably noticed some odd behaviors among the cubs. It almost looks like they are trying to breed!  Well, they aren’t breeding yet but these guys are juveniles, and experimenting with breeding-related behaviors is not unusual. Lions are generally considered to be mature around the age of three years old, but have successfully bred in captivity as early as two. The behaviors we are observing are harmless for now, but keepers are preparing to begin the process of separating the juvenile males from the rest of the pride during the winter.

The Great Cats team plans on keeping the separation process gradual in order to minimize stress. We’ll keep you posted about the process and timing as we go. To start, lion keeper Rebecca Stites will be monitoring the behaviors of the juvenile males for a couple of weeks before the separation process begins.

Starting January 2, volunteers from the lion behavior watch team have been posted in front of the lion yard to record data on the juvenile males. Behaviors related to social interactions, territorial markings, anxiety, and environmental interactions will be noted every four minutes. Once the males are separated from the pride, Rebecca and the behavior watch team will repeat the study for comparison.

We hope you’ll come by to observe their behaviors too, but please refrain from interrupting the behavior watchers (the nice people carrying clipboards). It takes a lot of concentration to keep track of multiple animals moving around the yard. Keepers (wearing grey shirts and khakis) and Zoo Guides (wearing red shirts-- without clipboards) are often visible passing by the lion yard and are always happy to answer questions you may have during your visit!

Wondering how much the Zoo’s young lions have grown during the past couple of months?  Lusaka and Fahari are currently tied for smallest at 216 pounds while Baruti is in the lead—weighing in at 272 pounds!  That’s the size of our full-grown male Sumatran tiger, Guntur!  It’s no wonder with all the food they are eating. These guys scarf down about eight to ten pounds per day. Think that’s a lot?  Our entire pride consumes nearly 600 pounds of food each week!!! 

Stay tuned—updates will be coming a bit more quickly over the next few months as our pride begins to change.