I suppose this story really begins with Imani’s story. And Imani’s story begins, of course, on Imani’s birthday: July 17th, 2011. It was the Saint Louis Zoo’s first lion birth in 37 years! Imani’s mother, a female lioness named “Cabara”, was showing amazing potential as a first-time mother, but unfortunately her body was not producing enough milk to support growing baby Imani. The Saint Louis keepers knew that they would have to intervene if Imani was going to survive, and so they made the difficult decision to pull Imani and hand-raise her.
Becky Wanner (lion keeper at the Saint Louis Zoo) along with a team of other individuals stepped in to fill the role of surrogate mother. Over the next 5 months, Becky and the other keepers worked around the clock to provide Imani with everything that she would need to grow into a healthy and social lion. Hand-raising baby animals can be quite challenging and the difficulty of the task is increased exponentially with socially complex animals (like lions). Feeding and cleaning up after baby Imani would not be enough; the keepers were also responsible for providing Imani with emotional support and nurturing her mental health as well. Becky and the other keepers had to be playmates and disciplinarians, teachers and providers and Imani’s only source of companionship while she grew strong enough and large enough to be reintegrated back with the pride.
All of the Saint Louis keepers’ hard work and efforts paid off in a huge way when Imani was reintroduced successfully to her father, “Ingozi” and mother “Cabara” approximately 7 months after Imani was born. Later on, Imani became a big sister to Cabara’s second litter of cubs: “Mtai” and “Serafina”. Imani, being the big sister, showed amazing maternal instincts towards her younger siblings. Her keepers, including Becky, always had high hopes that Imani would one day become a successful mother herself. As any decent zoo keeper can tell you, we absolutely pour our hearts into our work. Our own emotional state is tethered to the health and happiness of the animals in our care. When they are happy, we are happy. When they are stressed, we are stressed. Such is the nature of the bond between any care-giver and their charge; it is not unique to zookeeping alone. Parents will certainly be familiar with this kind of bond, as will teachers, doctors, therapists, pet-owners, and many more. When you do something you love for a living, you never work a day in your life (but you never really take a day off either).
Though many will be familiar with the kind of bond I’ve described, not everyone gets an opportunity to hand-raise a lion cub. And that kind of experience shapes you in a very special way. Such was the case with Becky Wanner and Imani. Becky and Imani shared a bond that few others on the planet will ever know or understand; a bond born out of
love, dedication, and above all other things, compassion. It’s the kind of connection that you hold onto for strength during life’s harder moments. For Becky Wanner and her loved ones, those harder moments came far too soon. Shortly after Imani’s pride of 5 was established, Becky had begun experiencing numbness in her hands. After working with doctors and completing a battery of tests, Becky let her Saint Louis coworkers know that her breast cancer had come back after nearly five years in remission.
As Becky underwent chemotherapy, she would often return to the St. Louis Zoo. Her husband Mark would bring her to the lion building after her appointments so that she could be with Imani. The visits with Imani seemed to lift Becky’s spirits during those difficult times and the unique and special bond they shared was apparent to everyone. After a long and hard-fought battle with cancer, Becky passed away on February 1st, 2013. Her friends and family, along with pictures of Imani were with Becky as she passed.
Four months later, Imani moved to the Cincinnati Zoo and began her new life with John. On November 13, 2014, Imani brought 3 beautiful female lion cubs into the world. When it came time to name the cubs, we were so excited to have an opportunity to honor Becky’s memory, to thank her for her contributions to our career field, and most
importantly, to acknowledge the monumental role she played in Imani’s life. Although I’d never met Becky, I can’t help but feel a connection to her through Imani. Everyone who knew Becky remembers her for her beautiful smile, her love of and dedication to the natural world, and above all things, her compassionate spirit. Becky’s husband and coworkers who knew her best all agreed that compassion was one of Becky’s strongest and most admirable character traits. We decided that “Huruma” (the Swahili word for “compassion”) would be a beautiful and fitting name to honor Becky’s memory.
The Cincinnati Zoo keepers watched the lion cubs’ personalities closely as they grew and developed. Cub #1 was bold and adventurous and would often sneak away from her litter mates to have private nursing and bonding time alone with Imani. Of the 3 girls, #1’s personality seems to be the most like Imani’s, so Cub #1 became the standout choice to honor Becky’s memory. I feel very honored to be able to share Becky’s story and I am so grateful to carry on her work as Imani’s keeper. Becky will be in our hearts and thoughts everyday and her spirit will live on in memory and through “Uma”. From our Cincinnati family to Becky’s Saint Louis family: “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” She will forever be remembered and loved.