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Lion Updates

Dec. 28, 2015: A First for the Zoo's Lion Pride

How do you draw blood from an African lion? With training and meatballs!

For the first time in this pride, Zoo veterinarians have successfully drawn blood from a lion—a juvenile male named Jumbe—while he was awake. Keeper Rebecca Stites reveals what this means for the health and future of the lion pride in the latest Q & A.

This story appears in the January 2016 edition of National Zoo News. Want animals in your inbox? Sign up for our e-newsletters.

lion training


Obtaining blood samples is a great way to help our animal care and vet teams monitor the cats' health. All of the Zoo's lions participate in blood draw training, but Jumbe is the first member of our current pride to allow us to successfully draw blood while awake!

If they didn't participate in this kind of training, we would have to put the cats under anesthesia every time we needed a health assessment, which can be stressful for them. Instead, we use positive reinforcement training; every time they do a behavior asked of them, they're rewarded with meatballs. Jumbe in particular is a very enthusiastic eater and is very willing to work for food!


Now that we've learned that our lions will tolerate a blood draw, it is possible that it could reduce the number of physical exams that require anesthesia. For example, when they leave for other zoos, the receiving facility usually requires specific health related tests. Some zoos may request a visual exam with a blood chemistry screening. Normally, we would have to put a lion under anesthesia to get blood. If the animal is willing to voluntarily participate in a blood draw, then it would not be necessary to anesthetize him/her. Other facilities may require additional screenings that require anesthesia.

Additionally, blood screenings are important for monitoring various known health conditions. For example, the Zoo's elderly lion, Lusaka, who died in 2010 was undergoing chemotherapy after a cancerous tumor was removed from her back. Regular blood chemistry screenings were essential for monitoring her body's response to the drugs, to ensure they were not having a negative impact on her body.


Before we can give Jumbe an injection or do a blood draw, he first has to do a behavior that we call "lining up." I will point from left to right, and this is his cue to lay down with his head and rear parallel to and pressed up against the mesh. If he needs to move a little closer, I'll give the floor a little tap and say, "move in." Another visual cue that we're about to do this training is a hook, which I use to guide his tail from his side of the enclosure underneath the mesh barrier to my side of the enclosure. At this point, Jumbe is so well-trained that the moment I kneel down, he automatically goes into the line-up position and will shoot his tail under the mesh!

With any cat, if you touch their tail, they will jump around or flinch. So, part of this training is getting them acclimated to having us touch their tails and having their tails manipulated. We always let them see the tools we're using before training begins; that becomes another visual cue of which training session we're about to do. We also give them a verbal cue and say, "stick!" And, sometimes, the lions will move away when you say "stick" because they anticipate what's coming!

With this training, it's always the animal's choice to participate, so if they decide that they want to walk away they always have the option to do so.


We practice the "line up" training several days of the week to ensure that the positioning is just right. About once a month, a vet tech joins us for the training to help the animals get acclimated to having a second person there and get used to the sight of the syringe. Unless a cat has a particular vaccine due, we practice with saline to get them used to the sensation of the injection.


For the cats, training seems more like a game or an activity. Their faces are so expressive; I can see when they're thinking about which behavior I'm asking them to do. Jumbe, especially, gets really excited when we're about to do a training session. Before we even begin, I'll feed him up to half of his diet so that he's focused and ready to go.

Jumbe is pretty laid-back compared to some of his siblings. I brought his tail out from underneath the mesh, and our vet technician felt for the vein. He didn't move or flinch when we did his blood draw at all. He lay still and I rewarded him continuously with meatballs. Once vets were finished drawing blood, I blew my whistle to let him know that we were finished with the behavior and he was in for a big reward!

Nov. 2015: Lion Reproductive Study

A mystery: African lions are breeding, but they’re not producing cubs. Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute science sleuths are on the case! Their goal: to determine the cause of the cub “bust” by studying the hormones in female lion feces.

Their findings were published a PLOS-ONE paper entitled, "Characterization of Ovarian Steroid Patterns in Female African Lions, and the Effects of Contraception on Reproductive Function," published Oct. 13, 2015. Authors SCBI reproductive physiologist Budhan Pukazhenthi and lab technician Sarah Putman talk about what their findings mean for the future of this vulnerable species.



African lions in zoos in North America are managed by a Species Survival Plan (SSP). Among other things, the SSP makes decisions about breeding recommendations and provides husbandry and management guidance to zoos.

In the early 1990s, the number of lions under human care had reached holding capacity and the SSP recognized that there were lions in the population that could potentially be African/Asiatic lion hybrids because the two species had not previously been managed separately.

The SSP instated a breeding moratorium in 1993 to help control the population size, to prevent hybrids from producing offspring. At the same time, they imported 14 lions from Africa to boost the genetic diversity within the population.

In 1998, the moratorium was lifted and breeding recommendations between animals of known genetic background were made. However, managers noted a lower than normal birth rate between 1998 and 2004. At that time, the SSP requested assistance from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in determining the source of low offspring production. This study emerged from that request.


In order for the reproductive physiologists at SCBI (and elsewhere) to identify the cause of poor reproduction in lions, we realized that first we needed to have the basic information about lion reproduction and their hormone levels.

This study set out to characterize the hormone patterns of normally cycling individuals of diverse age and then determine any differences in those patterns in lions that previously had been unsuccessful in conceiving.


Our lion keepers collected fecal samples from 10 individual lions. They did so by using glitter and other food items as marking tools. Interestingly, none of these material are digested and appear in the feces making it easy to identify the animal.

The lions were fed separately each day and the keepers sprinkled different colors of glitter, or other items like split peas and whole corn, onto each animal’s diet of meat before the animal ate it. The keepers kept a record of who ate which marker.

The next day when they were cleaning the enclosures, they would put a piece of fecal material that had a specific color of glitter or corn pieces in it into a baggie labeled with the animal’s name and date. The samples were stored in a freezer until they could be brought to SCBI in Front Royal for analysis.


We can learn a lot from fecals! We were specifically looking at reproductive and adrenal (also call stress hormone) hormone concentrations in each sample. But, you can also determine an animals’ diet just by looking at the feces. Additionally, one can identify the genetic makeup of an individual as well as identify individuals in a population (wild) based on the cells (DNA) coating or bound to the feces.


One thing we found that we were not expecting was that the youngest females included in the study were cycling. Based on wild data, they should not have reached puberty yet.

This then led us to look at the body weights of cubs and the results indicated that lions were growing at a faster rate in human care compared to the wild. This is likely due to the consistent diet of high quality food lions in human care receive compared to the unpredictable diet that cubs in the wild consume.

Another significant finding was that the contraceptives currently in use in lions were lot more efficient (effective for a longer duration) than the duration they were thought to be effective. As a result, some of the females were 'shut down' for several years compared to 8-12 months (which would be normal).


New information/knowledge from this study will allow managers and researchers to better manage their collections. We are now able to conduct pregnancy tests to inform institutions if their animals are pregnant. With the unexpected results we obtained with contraception, additional research is now warranted to identify a more reliable/predictable drug to contracept lions.

If we identify a reliable contraception, institutions can safely exhibit lions in prides and would not have to separate males and females. Overall, these advances would allow lion holders to avoid a 'baby boom' and hopefully eliminate a “bust”—i.e. a breeding season with no cubs.

This story appears in the November 2015 issue of National Zoo News. Janine L. Brown, Ashley D. Franklin, Emily C. Schneider, Nicole P. Boisseau and Cheryl S. Asa also contributed to the journal publication.

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May 27, 2015

What does it take to keep up with a sextuplet of juvenile African lions? In the latest Keeper Q & A, Rebecca Stites and Kristen Clark dish on the cats' quirky personalities, training triumphs, and big changes to come.

Click photos for larger images


The juvenile lions challenge their mothers, Naba and Shera, occasionally, but they are very eager to please them as well. They seek out attention and approval from their mothers quite frequently. However, sometimes we see them protesting loudly at their mothers if they're not in the mood to be groomed.

A few months ago, Luke began demonstrating a new behavior that we didn't observe with his previous litters of cubs: when we call the cubs inside the building, Luke will wait until there is just one or two left in the yard, and then chase them around. It almost seems to have become a game for him.

One day, Luke chased Eva, and she shocked Luke by turning around and going back after him. His face was priceless! After a while, the cubs started helping each other out by playfully tackling Luke during his little game. In recent weeks, the behavior has dwindled a bit though. Perhaps it's not as much fun now that the cubs are getting so big.

We're starting to gradually separate the juvenile males from the pride. At this point we're separating the males from the females during their meals and overnight. Before the end of next month, we plan on having them separated from the pride completely. They will remain in a coalition with their father until the time comes to separate individuals or pairs for transport to other zoos.


We recently started offering new bungee enrichment and hanging toys inside the lion building. We are working on tweaking the toys to decrease the cats' ability to destroy them during a single play session, but so far they are having a ball! Literally—having a ball. A ball is suspended from a cable in one of the lions' indoor enclosures. The lions have learned that unlike the boomer ball they play with in the yard, this one fights back!

This toy will be a great addition to our enrichment program during days of extreme weather conditions when the cats spend more than usual time inside. We were able to purchase this through the Enrichment Giving Tree. These toys are a great way to keep the cubs physically and mentally active!

When it comes to their outdoor yards, the cubs really seem to enjoy competitive play—like tug-o-war and keep away with fire hoses. We've also see them using teamwork to accomplish a goal, including naughtily bringing a boomer ball in the chute when we are trying to shift them all outside!

Some of their toys can be played with both on land and in the water. Boomer balls and kegs—which the cubs like to stalk and pounce on—also float. We hope to see them playing with them in the moat this summer.


A few of the cubs have taken a dip in the water, but Amahle is our only true swimmer up to this point! The first time she went for a full swim was during Fiesta Musical 2014. She will occasionally swim beyond the wading depth of the pool to retrieve a toy that has floated away.

We've seen Chisulo wading in the shallow end. We're not sure that his entries were all intentional, but at least one time he appeared to willingly enter the moat. Afterward, he ran straight to the top of the tier with the rest of his siblings on his tail. He seemed so excited that he finally braved the moat! Eva has also taken a dip—but only briefly by sticking her front paws in the water.

We look forward to seeing if we will have any other swimmers out of the group. Perhaps the summer heat will bring a pride of swimming lions!


Amahle, Jumbe and Eva are all lining-up for injections like pros now. Desta and Chisulo have also progressed very well with injection training in the last few months. We're working on blood draw training. Jumbe is the most comfortable with having his tail handled, and he sometimes shoots his tail right out from under the enclosure mesh. We are not yet attempting to draw blood from any of the cubs yet, but our goal is to be trained and ready if the need arises.

For Shaka, injection training is still a work in progress—he still rolls over when he gets frustrated! It's sometimes difficult to get him to settle down until he receives a reward. Then, he tends to focus a bit better on the training session. The length and intensity of training sessions varies depending on which behaviors are being focused on during a particular training session, and how engaged each individual is. The cubs receive meatballs as positive reinforcement, and they are highly motivated to get their rewards!


Each cub typically receives anywhere from 200 grams (one-half to 1 pound) of meat during a training session (amounting to about 10-20 meatballs per training session)—if they are doing behaviors correctly.

At this point, we are still feeding the juveniles communally; the cubs share 35 pounds of meat each day. As long as everyone gets their own lump sum to settle down with, we don't see food aggression until there are a few scraps left. The male juveniles are more food aggressive than the females and tend to squabble amongst themselves for any little tidbit that is left over.


The cubs range in weight from 209-277 pounds. Chisulo has been the biggest from the time that the cubs began sampling meat, but Shaka has been catching up. As of last week, Shaka and Chisulo were tied at 126 kg (277 pounds)! That's more than our male Sumatran tiger juvenile, Bandar, who is six months older!

Amahle has been the smallest from the beginning and weighs a "petite" 95 kilos, or 209 pounds. It's the product of being the only female among the youngest litter of cubs. What she lacks in size, she makes-up for with a sparkling personality. This little girl is sweet and playful.


The best time to see the lions is after 10 a.m. every day, weather permitting. On nights when the weather is nice, the cats have the option of spending the night outside. The lions have adjusted well to the change, but occasionally, they come inside and zonk out for a few hours before showing any interest in going back out. If you visit the lion yard and can only find a few, it's probably because the others are snoozing in the air conditioning.

Luke seems to appreciate the extra fresh air more than any of the lions. He comes inside when we call him, and is always ready to get back outside where his fans can adore him!

February 19, 2015

January 24 and March 2 mark our African lion cubs first birthdays! Animal keepers Kristen Clark and Rebecca Stites reveal what's new with the cubs in the latest Q&A!


Rebecca: The personality of each begins to show itself at just a few weeks old, and these cubs are quite different from one another.

Eva is all lion! Every morning she greets me with a sassy growl. Even as a small cub, she was difficult to handle during vet exams and weigh-ins. Although the days of picking her up are far behind us, she remains feisty and tough and makes sure everyone knows it!

Kristen: Desta is very inquisitive and often seeks rough play with Shaka, Chisulo, and Jumbe. Both she and her sister Eva will defend each other when dad Luke singles them out in the yard by distracting him so the other can go indoors.

Rebecca: Jumbe has the ability to melt hearts when he looks at you with his big round eyes. It's a tender expression that has followed him from the first few weeks of his life and is a beautiful compliment to his easy-going personality. He's not shy, but he tends to lay low. His relatively calm demeanor makes him a joy to train. He gets along with everyone in the pride.

Kristen: Shaka seems to enjoy interacting with his keepers and acts like the "class clown" during training sessions. If he appears confused by what I'm asking him to do on cue, he'll do acrobatic body rolls instead!

Rebecca: I don't pick favorites, but Amahle has her paws wrapped around my heart! She is very laid back like Jumbe but learns things exceptionally quick like her mother, Shera. I have yet to hear her growl or hiss, even in the presence of food.

Kristen: Chisulo's personality reminds me of Baruti, his older half-brother who was born here in 2010. Size-wise, he's the largest of the cubs and seems to enjoy using brute force on enrichment items (and his siblings). Despite this aspect of his personality, he is laid back during training sessions. It can be challenging for me to motivate him!


Kristen: Desta, Chisulo, and Shaka have all mastered sit, lay down, open mouth, and presentation of paw pads.

From very early on, every time I asked Shaka for "down," he would lay down and immediately go into a full body roll. It's very charming!

Desta has made a lot of progress with her line-up behavior and her motivation for training has improved.

All three are doing really well on lining up next to the mesh and holding still for injections. The line-up behaviors in general are a huge step in the training process, so those I feel are most rewarding. It helps prepare the cubs for a lifetime of voluntary vaccines and other injections that they may require.

Every time the lions do a behavior that we ask of them, they're rewarded with a meatball.

Rebecca: Eva, Jumbe, and Amahle have mastered sit, lay down, open mouth, and line up. They just completed their one year exams, so in preparation we've been focusing mostly on body positioning/presentation for an injection of anesthetic and have practiced holding still for the injection.

People are usually surprised to hear that lions will voluntarily sit still for a shot, but it's the body positioning in the line-up training that presents the biggest challenge. We don't practice with needles and saline until it is just about time for an exam. This also helps us determine who is likely to tolerate a hand-injected anesthetic and who won't.

Now that exams are over, we're playing with some fun behaviors, like jumping onto a bench and rolling over. These behaviors aren't particularly important for husbandry, but it's a fun way to bond and build trust with the cubs. It's also a great way to exercise their minds and bodies on the days when it's too cold to go outside!


Kristen: Each of the cubs I work with has his or her own challenges. Sometimes, though, the challenges manifest in cute ways.

Shaka, who likes to do acrobatics when he doesn't quite get the cue, has so much personality that it's hard to get him focused on the task at hand. To help with this, I incorporate some fun targeting behaviors to keep him on point. It seems to help relieve his frustration.

Chisulo has taken a very slight backslide in his line up behavior because he seems to think his tail is moving involuntarily. During line up, his tail often swishes around so much that he chases and bites his tail rather than focusing on the training! However, I'm trying to use his tail-flicking to my advantage to train for blood draw over the next few months.

Rebecca: Eva has been the most challenging for me to train from the start, but I've noticed great improvement during the last several months. As she approached her first birthday (Jan. 24), I noticed that she was much more focused during training, and our sessions were lasting longer. She's the only one that that isn't quite ready to sit voluntarily for her shots, but she's real close. Amahle and Jumbe tie for easiest, although Jumbe is easily distracted while Amahle stays very focused no matter what is going on around her.

Getting past injection training is always a big hurdle, but I feel proud every time the cubs master a behavior. There is a look on their faces when they know they have finally figured out what it is that I've been asking them to do. After that, it's cake! With each behavior that they conquer, I know I'm helping to set the lions and their future care-givers up for success with regards to their care and management.


Rebecca: The lion cubs love to play! A favorite enrichment item seems to be burlap sacks. We'll stuff the sacks with hay and place them in different areas around the outdoor yard. The cubs will tear, shred, and tug-a-war these the sacks until there isn't anything but small rags left!

They also enjoy pouncing on boomer balls, modified metal kegs (which float in the moat), cardboard boxes, and natural enrichment like logs, rocks, and even pinecones. Amahle has been seen testing the waters a few times and we want to encourage moat play this summer!

Kristen: It is so important for the cats to have a wide variety of toys that encourage physical activity and mentally stimulates them. We would love to be able to give the cats a bobbin and new boomer balls that they can pounce on and play with in the yard. Readers who are interested in giving the cats a birthday gift can donate to the Enrichment Giving Tree, and we'll ensure the toys get to the cubs!


Kristen: The cubs are fully weaned from their mothers and are fed communally. Altogether, they eat about 35 pounds of meat a day! To make sure everyone gets a fair share, we separate their food into six piles (which helps reduce aggression, too). As the cubs get older, we will begin to separate them for individual feedings.

Rebecca: Shera's cubs were six months when she stopped nursing them, which is typical. I can remember coming in one morning to find Shera resting on a bench. One of her cubs hopped up to nurse, but Shera simply used her rear foot to slowly push the cub away. She then rolled over so that her belly was facing the wall.

Naba continued nursing her cubs until they were about eight months. Shera's cubs took note of the available milk and often tried to nurse from Naba. Naba usually obliged, but lions only have four teats, which caused a stir if more than four wanted to eat at one time. Anytime the cubs began to fight over space to eat, Naba would close shop and walk away.


Kristen: The cubs weigh between 161 and 217 pounds. Chisulo is the largest male cub. Desta is the largest female cub. Amahle is the smallest of both litters.

Rebecca: Since Amahle is the youngest female, it's no surprise that she's the smallest. Chisulo, on the other hand, is already 30 pounds larger than his father was at the same age!


Kristen: We will continue to monitor their behavior, but I anticipate that by the time the cubs are 18 months old, we will separate them by gender.

Rebecca: At that point, male cubs will form a coalition with Luke and the females will remain a part of the pride with their mothers.


Rebecca: Now that the cubs are turning one year old, we are starting to see their deciduous teeth fall out, and their adult teeth coming in. This will continue over the second year of their life.

Kristen: In the next few months, the African Lion Species Survival Plan will provide guidance on where the cubs' new homes will be. Once we have recommendations, we will gradually separate those cubs from the group.

Rebecca: Our team will work with the SSP to ensure that each of the receiving facilities is a good fit for each of the cubs. We'll keep everyone posted as we learn more!

October 20, 2014

The six lion cubs at the Great Cats Exhibit are growing fast and their husbandry training sessions are in full swing! Parents Luke, Naba and Shera have their paws full with the rambunctious cubs—but it's our animal care team's challenge to care for the entire pride. Curator Craig Saffoe and keepers Rebecca Stites and Kristen Clark reveal what's new with the cubs in the latest Q&A!


Craig Saffoe, Curator:

Our lion cubs are doing everything that cubs ought to be doing: wrestling, playing, mock fighting. These are rough-and-tumble kinds of behaviors that are preparing them for being adult lions. They're at that age where they're learning more or less how to hunt.

We see them chasing their moms in particular. If you watch them play, you'll see that they're jumping up and they're pawing and kind of biting at their moms' rear end. That's how they hunt large animals in the wild.

We're seeing far less nursing, almost to the point where they're completely weaned. Usually the cubs are weaned between 7 and 9 months of age, so we're right around that time.


Rebecca Stites, Keeper:

I train Amahle, Jumbe and Eva. Target training comes easy to these guys now, and they have mastered the behaviors of sit and lay down as well. We are now working on more challenging behaviors.

The two behaviors I'm focusing on are opening of the mouth and body positioning for injections. The cubs chew everything from their cow bones to logs and rocks. It's very possible that we'll notice a few cubs sustaining damage to their baby teeth in the coming months which could mean a visit from the dentist. It's important that we can regularly get a good look inside their mouths. If they need any dental work done, anesthesia would be required so it's important to prepare them for injections.

That being said, my experience has been that training a lion to open their mouth (without biting the cage mesh) is one of the most challenging behaviors to master—even more challenging than training for injections—but Jumbe seems to be catching on pretty quickly!

Amahle has been doing very well with body positioning and I've begun desensitizing her to being lightly touched on her outer thigh with a plastic pole. These are the first steps towards hand-injections! Eva is just starting to work on "line-ups" and "open mouth" but we continue to practice simple behaviors such as sit and down. As her excitement for food increases, we'll master the more challenging behaviors.

Kristen Clark, Keeper:

Desta has back slid in her target training slightly and I'm trying to break her of the habit of swatting at the target rather than touching her nose to it. She does "open mouth," "sit," and "down" very well. I've been working on the "line up" behavior for voluntary injections, but she is a little rough on getting her body position correctly. I've been trying to break down that positioning into smaller, more easily mastered parts to set her up to succeed.

Chisulo can be a bit grumbly if he gets frustrated and doesn't understand what I'm asking for. He is the cub that contracted infectious arthritis earlier in life, so I'm hoping to work with him on behaviors that will allow for standing radiographs to monitor that front leg as he continues to grow. He is slowly starting to understand that "open mouth" does not mean, "stick out your tongue and lick." He is proficient at sit and down, and is making good progress on the line up position for voluntary injections.

Shaka has great focus and always seems excited when I pull out the target and feed sticks. He is the most vocal of the three cubs I work with, so getting him to open his mouth is not a challenge! He has mastered sit, down, open mouth, targeting, and is doing well at the early stages of the line-up behavior.


Rebecca Stites, Keeper:

For me, Eva is the most challenging to train. She has a lot of great energy that I would have expected to be beneficial, but she has a short attention span and the least amount of food motivation. If I delay in her training once I get the cubs separated from one another, it's hard to get her started at all. I have to be quick and know exactly what my goals are for her during any given training session because I know I'm only going to be able to work with her through a few behaviors.

Amahle and Jumbe are the easiest, but are excelling in different behaviors so I'm building on their strengths.

Kristen Clark, Keeper:

I'm fortunate that the three cubs that I train are motivated for food! Out of the three, Desta is probably the most challenging to train because she seems to have a shorter attention span than the two boys. Once I have her attention with meat, however, she is usually focused for at least a few minutes – as long as she is not separated from the rest of the pride for too long.

Chisulo and Shaka are so motivated for food – boys will be boys! Unless there is a lot of other activity in the building, I can usually count on their full attention. Shaka is the most proficient of the three cubs that I train.


Rebecca Stites, Keeper:

My favorite thing about training is that it's a great opportunity to build a positive relationship with each of the lions. In a way, we get to develop a language with each other through movement and sound. Being able to connect and communicate is very special. Even after a busy morning, I feel a sense of calm come over me during a training session.

Kristen Clark, Keeper:

When I train the cubs, I feel very connected to them as individuals. This connection will only get stronger as they get older, and will stay between us as long as they remain at the National Zoo. The training we are doing with the cubs will travel with them for a lifetime.

There is something very powerful about this bond, as it is based on trust. Even though the cubs are still young, you can feel a connection when they look directly into your eyes during a training session. I really feel that training is such an essential part of husbandry, and only improves our level of care of our animals.


Craig Saffoe, Curator:

The cubs range in weight from about 83 pounds to 108 pounds.


Craig Saffoe, Curator:

Not yet. We are starting to see them break away from each other in their weight, which means those who are getting bigger are probably hogging more of the food (they are still being fed communally) which makes sense. It is likely that those who are growing faster are a little more dominant just because they're bigger!


Craig Saffoe, Curator:

We've seen Amahle go into the water and swim a couple of laps! It caught us by surprise a little bit just like Baruti caught us by surprise; although it's not unheard of, we don't expect to see that from lions.


Craig Saffoe, Curator:

We separated our last litter (born in 2010) around the 13-month-old mark. If everything goes as that litter went, we'll be separating the pride into groups by early 2015. Luke has been separated from the adult females (but still gets time with all cubs every day) to ensure that no breeding occurs. We will have to await the next Species Survival Plan recommendation before we can breed them again.


Craig Saffoe, Curator:

Their first birthdays on January 24 and March 2!

September 15, 2014


July 1, 2014

On Father’s Day weekend, Shera’s four cubs made their big debut at the Great Cats exhibit! Now, visitors can see the whole pride every day between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. weather permitting. Animal keeper Rebecca Stites gives us the latest update on the cubs.

The cubs have already passed several milestones (the swim test, meeting dad, and so on). What’s the next big ‘event’ they have to look forward to?

Soon, all six cubs will have names!

My fellow keeper Kristen Clark and I selected the names for two of Shera’s cubs. We’ve named her daughter with the shave patch on her left rib Amahle, which means “beautiful one” in Zulu. The name and its meaning are a perfect fit for this beautiful, confident cub. For her son with the shave patch on his right rib, we’ve selected Chisulo, which means “strength of steel” (Southern Africa/Republic of Malawi). We felt that this name was fitting because of the strength he demonstrated in overcoming the illness that caused his limp.

Shera’s other two cubs with shave marks on their left and right hips will soon be named by the Zoo’s Board of Directors.

Naba’s cub with a shave mark on her right shoulder was named Eva in honor of Eva Pell, the former Undersecretary of Science for the Smithsonian. Eva’s sister with the share mark at the base of her tail received the name Desta, which means “joy” (Ethiopia). Zoo officials bestowed the honor of naming her to a donor who has been very generous to the Zoo.

Chisulo’s limp and lack-of-weight-gain caused some concern back in April. How is he doing?

Chisulo not only recovered from the illness that was causing him to limp, but he is thriving! Keeping this guy quiet and calm during his recovery was about as easy as it would be to keep a Labrador puppy quiet and calm. Despite his temporary disability, he continued to romp and play with his siblings. Although he didn’t gain weight during a one week period, his appetite did not appear to wane. It’s possible that his body was using the energy that he was consuming to help fight off his infection. As his infection wore off, his body weight shot-up. He’s now the largest cub from his litter!

How much do the cubs weigh?

Naba’s litter weighs about 55 pounds, Desta being a bit larger than her sister, Eva. Shera’s cubs weigh about 40 pounds on average, but Chisulo weighs the most at 44 pounds!

At what age do the cubs become too large to handle?

We are usually hands-off with the cubs by 4 months of age. By this time, the cubs protest being handled by keepers and by their mothers. They are also beginning to show an interest meat and are willing to participate in short training sessions. One of the first things they learn to walk onto the scale for a meatball reward so that we no longer have to carry them onto the scale outselves.

When cubs are acclimating to the yard, what behaviors can visitors expect to see?

During the first day in the yard, the cubs were a bit nervous. They carefully explored their new surroundings. The yard is more complex for a lion cub going outside for the first time than one may think. Unlike vulnerable wild lion cubs who experience the great outdoors at birth and naturally acclimate to their world, Naba and Shera’s cubs acclimated to living inside the lion building.

Going outside means being exposed to grass, dirt, rain, a giant water moat, a whole variety of new smells, boulders, trees, and wildlife that enters the yard (ducks, squirrels, snakes, chipmunks) all at once. After a couple of days they began to let loose and work on conquering the levels of the yard. The cubs figured out how to climb up three of the four tiers the first time they went outside. The Fourth tier presented a challenge though. After the first week, the cubs began figuring out how to climb to the top tier.

Visitors will likely see lots of play behaviors that relate to their natural predatory instincts. The cubs will stalk, chase and pounce on logs, rocks, each other, and their parents. Visitors may even see the cubs teaming up to tacking one of their parents, as if they are taking down a cape buffalo!

Have the cubs ventured into the water?

The cubs have figured out that they can get a cool drink of water from the moat, but have not intentionally entered the water for play. Lions don’t typically enjoy the water the way that tiger do. Wild lions sometimes use water to their advantage when hunting by driving their prey into the water. We’d love to see one or more of the cubs enjoy the yards water feature the way their older brother, Baruti, did. It’s likely that most entries will be accidental though.

When they’re outside, do the cubs stick close to mom/each other?

The cubs are beginning to show confidence in the yard. Visitors may see them exploring an area of the yard alone, but spend most of their time playing with a sibling or parent. It does not appear that the cubs are sticking with each other or with their parents due to lack of confidence, but rather because it’s more fun to play with a buddy than to play alone.

Keepers waited a few weeks before putting Luke outside with the cubs. Why?

We wanted to establish a shifting routine with the cubs before we let them go outside with Luke. Like a true gentleman, Luke waits for Naba and Shera to go inside before he enters the building. After cubs were born, Luke became conditioned to his mates shifting inside long before he was called in. This was because Naba and Shera regularly came in during the day to tend to the cubs—a responsibility that Luke did not have to share.

The problem with being conditioned to coming in last is that it difficult to convince Luke to come inside if cubs are lagging behind. It takes quite a bit of time for the cubs to learn the shifting routine. Additionally, cubs typically figure out how to go up the yard tiers but do not always have the confidence to climb down them. If Luke does not come inside, keepers are not able to go into the yard after a cub. After the cubs learned to shift reliably, we started giving Luke access in the yard with the rest of the pride.

Does Luke interact with these cubs differently than the litters born in 2010?

The only difference between Luke’s interactions is that he seemed to know what to expect. He was less curious about the third and fourth litter of cubs than he was the first and second. He also showed a greater level of confidence with these litters during initial introductions than he did when being introduced his first two litters. He seems to be enjoying their company during the day, but also appears to appreciate some alone time after they go inside for the day.

What enrichment do you give the cubs?

Before the cubs began receiving access to the yard, the cubs enjoyed playing with plastic balls, catnip balls, rope toys, and even pinecones and logs that we brought in from the yard. Now that the cubs are going out, the yard itself provides the cubs with tons of enrichment opportunities. Everything is so new and exciting to them. They love to play with the fallen tree branches and twigs, enjoy scratching the tree logs and climbing on the stumps. There are new smells all around them outside. They even had their first encounter with a resident snake!

Soon we’ll start to introduce them to hay-stuffed burlap sacks and cardboard boxes. These items may not sound thrilling, but lions love the shred these items apart and play tug-of-war with them.

We’d like to give a special “thank you” to the folks who donated to the Enrichment Giving Tree as part of #ZooEnrichment week. Thanks to your generosity, our lion cubs (and all the Zoo’s animals) have their pick of toys to play with!

Are they eating solid food?

The cubs started sampling their mothers’ diets when they were about 2.5 months old. They now chow down an 11 pound feast of ground beef, communally, seven days a week. They also receive cow bones to chew on twice each week. Soon, they will be introduced to whole prey.

Have the cubs started training?

Now that the cubs are eating meat enthusiastically, we have begun their training. The first training challenge was shifting inside when called. The cubs have now learned that there is a wonderful food reward for coming inside when called. With repetition, they have become conditioned to approach the shift door when called.

Additionally we are working on basic behaviors such as target, sit, lay down, and walk onto a scale. As they progress, the cubs will also learn to present their paws for paw pad inspection, open their mouths for inspection with a flashlight, and position their bodies for hand-injected vaccinations.

Will the Lion Cub Cam return?

The outdoor Lion Cam was removed while construction of the new safety barrier was taking place. Now that the construction is finished, our IT team is working hard to get the Lion Cam back up and running. If the reinstallation is successful, we will be sure to update you via our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages. We hope to move the cameras that currently show Naba and Shera’s dens to their current enclosures. However, that may not happen for some time.

I want to help African lions! What can I do?

Visit the Zoo to learn more about lions and to see these beautiful creatures up close!

Your help can ensure the future of lions not only at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo but in the wider, wild world! Text NATZOO to the number 20222 via cell phone to donate $10 to our conservation fund.

June 13, 2014

The four youngest members of the African lion pride at the Smithsonian's National Zoo are making their public debut today at noon at the Great Cats Exhibit! Born March 2 to mother Shera and father Luke, the 14-week-old cubs passed their swim test in May and have received all their vaccinations. They will join their mother, aunt Nababiep, and two female half-siblings on exhibit weather permitting. The cubs will receive their names in the coming weeks; at the moment, animal care staff identify the cubs by unique shave marks on their hips and shoulders.

African Lion Cubs Debut June 13

Photo credit: Abby Wood, Smithsonian's National Zoo

For the past seven weeks, keepers have conducted introductions between the cubs, their mothers, and Luke behind-the-scenes. Thus far, all lions have showed interested in one another and their interactions have been positive during those meetings. Eventually, the entire pride will be outside in the yard together.

The cubs will be on exhibit every day as weather and animal behavior allows.

May 6, 2014

Four African lion cubs took a brisk paddle today nd passed their swim reliability test. The cubs—three males and one female—were born at the Zoo March 2. All cubs born at the Great Cats exhibit must undergo the swim reliability test and prove that they are ready to be on exhibit. All four cats were able to keep their heads above water, navigate to the shallow end of the moat and climb onto dry land. Now that they have passed this critical step, the cubs are one step closer to being ready to explore the yard with their mother, 9-year-old Shera. The 10-week-old cubs will make their public debut in mid-June once all vaccinations have been administered.

“As keepers, it’s our duty to take every precaution to ensure the cubs’ survival,” said Kristen Clark, an animal keeper at the Great Cats exhibit. “It’s possible that a cub could be playing around and get knocked into the moat by a parent or sibling. We want to make sure that if they find themselves in that situation, they know how to pull themselves out of the water and onto shore.”

Both cubs took the test under Clark’s guard, as she gently guided them in the right direction. The shallow end of the moat is approximately 2.5 feet deep, which could present an obstacle for young cats. The side of the moat closest to the public viewing area is about 9 feet deep and is an essential safety barrier that effectively keeps the cats inside their enclosure.

In an adjacent exhibit, the two lion cubs born to mother Nababiep on January 24 explored their outdoor enclosure after passing their swim test in April. Starting Friday, May 9, keepers will decide on a day-to-day basis whether Naba’s two cubs will spend time in the yard from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. This decision will be based on weather and how the cubs adjust to being outdoors. The Zoo will continue to share the latest updates and photos on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The Zoo received a recommendation to breed the lions from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan for African lions. An SSP matches individual animals across the country for breeding in order to maintain a healthy, genetically diverse and self-sustaining population. Luke, the Zoo’s 8-year-old male lion, sired all six cubs. The next step in building a pride at the Zoo is to introduce all nine lions into the same shared space. The first meeting between them took place April 24 and was captured on video.

“Introductions are always tense the first time you do them, but we always try to build on positive behaviors we’ve seen in the past,” said Rebecca Stites, an animal keeper at the Great Cats exhibit. “All lions seemed interested in one another and their interactions were positive during “howdy door” and face-to-face meetings. We’re gradually increasing the amount of time that the pride is together behind the scenes. Our hope is that they will all be on exhibit as one pride this summer.”

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.

April 30, 2014

The lion cubs are all doing quite well! Naba’s girls weigh about 30 pounds now, and Shera’s cubs range from 19 to 20.5 pounds. Shera’s cub that had the limp is showing great improvement. His limp is very slight, and his blood-work came back normal this week. In fact, he seems to be outcompeting his siblings when it comes to eating because he is now the largest cub from his litter!

April 24, 2014

This update was written by animal keeper Kristen Clark.

Today, the cubs met face-to-face with Luke for the first time! Introductions are always tense the first time you do them, but we always try to base it on positive behaviors we’ve seen in the past and experiences we’ve had in the past. We’ve introduced Luke to his cubs though a mesh “howdy door” prior to today’s meeting. All lions (dad, moms, and cubs) were interested in one another and their interactions were positive during those meetings, so we decided it was time to try putting them together in the same shared space.

Photos by Jen Zoon, Smithsonian's National Zoo

We’ve learned that it’s better to always err on the side of being cautious and conservative when it comes to introducing the cubs to their dad. Because lions are large carnivores and we cannot go in the enclosure physically to separate them, we need to trust our instincts and rely on the positive behaviors we’ve seen so far. There’s no harm in taking these intros very slowly. It seems like the progress we are making is small and incremental, but that’s the way we have successfully introduced the previous pride.

At first, Luke seemed a little apprehensive. He squabbled at the cubs a little bit and pawed at the older litter when they were a little close to his tail—more than he was comfortable with. Luke did bare his teeth, but it was a calm way of telling the cubs that he wasn’t in the mood to play! The younger cubs got this message right away, and ran over to mom Shera and began to nurse. The older cubs are a bit more brazen and stayed on either side of dad. They continued to try to sneak up on Luke’s tail and test the waters! Luke very well could have jumped up on the bench to get away from the cubs, but he chose to lay on the floor with them instead and let them play around him.

The entire time, Naba and Shera stayed in the adjacent den and kept their eyes on what was going on. There was not much vocalizing between the adults, which shows that they were comfortable with Luke’s actions towards the cubs. Neither female felt the need to get up and roar at Luke for any sort of infraction. Naba, as the dominant female of the pride, gave off a “casual” vibe. While she looked calm and relaxed, she was definitely watching everything that was going on. She hung out by the door and lay there with her head cocked to one side. All of her focus was on what Luke was doing.

After about a half-hour of being together, we decided to close the door between Luke and the cubs. All of the interactions we had observed were calm—there were no aggressive vocalizations from Luke, Naba, or Shera. Everybody self-separated; Naba moved away to an adjacent enclosure with her cubs, and Shera was nursing her cubs, so it seemed like a perfect time to end it—while all was calm. Luke was also relaxed, but as soon as we opened the door he eagerly ran outside to have some Dad time by himself.

Today was a very positive experience for everybody, and we hope that that will continue. From here on out, we will continue these introductions and gradually increase the amount of time that the pride is together. We will start inside, and then build up to putting the entire pride together outside after all cubs pass their swim reliability test and get their vaccinations.

April 16, 2014

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, 2014

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, 2014

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, 2014

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, 2014

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, 2014

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.

Updates from 2013

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!

Back to Top of 2013

Updates from 2012

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.

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