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Category — Cats

Lion Keeper’s Blog: Who’s Who? How to Tell the Cubs Apart

I’ve put off writing this blog for a long time because I knew it would be a challenge. Early on, telling the cubs apart was much easier. Willa (the smallest of the bunch by far) had 4 very distinctive markings along her lower back. Uma was the largest and also the lightest in color. Kya was easy to distinguish because she matched Uma in size, but was much darker in color. Additionally, their vastly different personalities paired with whatever they were doing in the moment helped us to determine which cub we were looking at most of the time.

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Willa (on the left) with her distinctive markings on her back. Uma (in the center) was larger than Willa and lighter in color. Kya (on the right) similar in size to Uma, but much darker coat color.

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Willa (left) snoozes against Imani’s leg. Uma (center) grooms her sister, while Kya (right) attacks Imani’s tail tuft.

But as the cubs grew, their size differences began to diminish as Willa (our runt) caught up to her sisters. Additionally, the dark markings (which help to camouflage the cubbies as they hide from predators) began to blend together or fade. All three cubs’ coats took on very similar appearances. And I began to feel a little bit panicky about accurately identifying each cub. What kind of lion keeper can’t tell her lions apart? Honestly. Maybe I should just fill out my own pink slip to save myself some of the embarrassment.

Each day, I watched the cubs closely and took photos from every angle. I edited the pictures like a crazy person… zooming and cropping, changing the shading and the contrast, always looking for some clearly distinguishing features I could share with all of you. I would cheer for joy when I thought I’d nailed down an identifier but was quickly dejected when I realized that the same feature was actually present on another cub as well. Sometimes a new marking would appear (on the bridge of the nose for example), and it would turn out to be a wet spot that would dry and disappear. This was proving to be a very difficult task.

Fortunately, Willa stands apart from her sisters in a couple of real, but not-so-obvious ways. I can always seem to pick Willa out of the crowd because of her eyes. There is something very unique and distinctive about her eyes that is very different from her sisters’. They have an apprehensive, almost forlorn quality to them (a characteristic all too familiar from looking at John for the last few years).

Willa’s tell-tale eyes

Willa with her melancholy eyes.

Willa’s tell-tale eyes

Willa’s tell-tale eyes

Additionally, Willa has maintained her slightly darker coat color, and her cautious personality has persisted into her adolescence. If someone’s hanging back and staying close to Mom or Dad, it’s probably Willa. If someone’s over-reacting about a perceived threat (like a feather duster), it’s probably Willa. By pairing her personality with her very distinguishing eyes, Willa is easily the least challenging to identify.

But Uma and Kya are a different story. At one point, I even considered the possibility that Uma and Kya might be identical twins. That theory alleviated some of the feelings of inadequacy I was experiencing, but didn’t solve my problem. I still had 2 cubs that were VERY difficult to tell apart, and I had to figure it out soon before their few distinguishing features disappeared completely.

Fortunately for me, someone much smarter than myself figured out a long time ago that lions can be identified by their entirely unique whisker patterns. Just like our fingerprints (which are completely unique to us), a lion’s whisker pattern is completely unique to that lion and will never change over the course of its lifetime. In fact, this is the method utilized by researchers to identify different wild lions (especially with camera trap images). You can learn more about how wild lions are identified here.

So all that’s left to do is analyze some high-quality images of our girls and determine the unique whisker patterns of each. The picture of Uma shown below is a good example. The whisker spots on the right side of her face are clearly visible, and we can see 2 distinct whisker spots in the top row (or the identification row). When compared with the second row of whiskers (or the “reference row”), we see that the two whisker spots on top row line up almost perfectly with the 3rd and 4th whisker spots on the second row, forming a little square. This is unique to Uma and will serve as a full-proof method of identification for the rest of her life.

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For the sake of comparison, a picture of Kya is shown below. Again, the whisker spots on the right side of her face are clearly visible, and, like Uma, we can see 2 distinct whisker spots in the top row. However, when compared with the second row of whiskers, we see that the two whisker spots on top row lay just on either side of the 4th whisker spot on the second row. Instead of a square (like Uma) Kya’s top whisker spots form a little triangle on the right side of her face. This is unique to Kya and will always be a reliable way of identifying her throughout her life.

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So how will this help you to identify the cubs when they are out on exhibit this spring? It probably won’t. :( Unless they are laying right up against the glass viewing and they aren’t moving and the whiskers on the right side of their face are clearly visible. Then you should be able to figure out which cub you’re looking at. :) But what’s more likely to happen is that as the cubs get older, they’ll grow and change and develop. Together, we’ll learn their personalities and their tendencies. And maybe with all the roughhousing and play-fighting, someone might even end up with a tell-tale scar on their nose or cheek. ;) Hopefully, at some point, they will become very clearly distinguishable for everyone, but until then, we’ll just have to keep tabs and count whiskers.

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Want to practice your whisker identification skills? Try comparing Uma’s and Kya’s left sides! What do you see? Which whisker spots are unique? Keep practicing and in just a couple short weeks, you can try your hand at identifying the cubs live and in person as they go on exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo!

Uma’s left side

Uma’s left side

Kya’s left side

Kya’s left side

March 25, 2015   5 Comments

Sihil, the Zoo’s Ambassador Ocelot, Helps Save Ocelots in Texas!

Last week, the Zoo’s Cat Ambassador Program and their ambassador ocelot, Sihil (pronounced C-L), traveled to Texas for the annual Ocelot Conservation Festival. Hosted by the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and the Gladys Porter Zoo, the Festival raises awareness about the endangered Texas ocelot and appeals to those who share their space with these pint-sized predators to protect them.

Sihil and her trainer, Alicia Sampson

Sihil and her trainer, Alicia Sampson

Did you know that ocelots still range up into the United States? Biologists estimate there are about 80 remaining and they live only in the southern tip of Texas. They are federally listed as endangered in the United States and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners work to protect them. Learn more from this infographic we created on saving the Texas ocelot:

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This is the eighth year in row that Sihil and her trainers have participated in the Festival, and the second year that I’ve accompanied them. It’s a long drive to and from Brownsville, Texas, but Sihil is an old pro at traveling. She enjoys watching the landscape and other cars go by out the windows of the van, and she especially cherishes the one-on-one attention and extra treats and toys she receives from her trainers on the trip. The rest of the time, she sleeps like a typical cat would.

Over the two days we spent in Texas, we kept busy. The first order of business was a 6:00AM television appearance on the local Channel 4 news to highlight the Festival. Next up was an appearance at a seminar held at the University of Texas Pan American . This event featured several speakers who addressed ocelots and the issues they face. Dr. Michael Tewes, Regents Professor and Research Scientist at Texas A & M, discussed his work with ocelots in Willacy County. The Texas Department of Transportation discussed transportation issues and the importance of wildlife crossings. Dr. Hilary Swarts, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Biologist, discussed the status of and issues facing ocelots in Cameron County. Following the speakers, Sihil strutted her stuff for an audience of about 125 while her trainers, Alicia Sampson and Colleen Nissen, shared information.

Sihil and her trainers at the University of Texas Pan American

Sihil and her trainers at the University of Texas Pan American

After lunch (and a nap for Sihil), our next appearance was at the Cameron County Commissioner’s Office. Nearly 60 government employees learned about Texas ocelots and were treated to what was a first glimpse for most of a live ocelot when Sihil jumped up on the table in front of them. Since they are so rare in the wild, most South Texans have never seen a live ocelot up close and in person before.

Cameron County employees meet Sihil

Cameron County employees meet Sihil

That evening the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge held its annual Ocelot Soiree fundraiser. Activities included live music, ocelot-themed appetizers, drinks, a live auction of ocelot-inspired art, a presentation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and of course, an appearance by Sihil.

Sihil at the Ocelot Soiree

Sihil at the Ocelot Soiree

The next day was the official Ocelot Conservation Day, which kicked off with Ocelot 5K and 1K Runs. Many of the 600 runners really got into the ocelot spirit with the way they dressed.

Ocelot 5K runners

Ocelot 5K runners

The finish line brought the runners into the Glady Porter Zoo’s South Texas Discovery Center where the Ocelot Conservation Festival was held. Each runner received a very cool ocelot medal as a badge of their accomplishment and support for ocelots.

Ocelot 5K Run medal

Ocelot 5K Run medal

From 10:00AM to 4:00PM, more than 1,300 people stopped by the Festival, which featured information tables, fun activities and the chance to watch Sihil show off her climbing skills. Needless to say, she was a big hit and generated a lot of great questions from the audience.

Face painting at the Ocelot Festival

Face painting at the Ocelot Festival

Sihil at the Ocelot Festival

Sihil at the Ocelot Festival

So what is the current status of ocelots in Texas? Are we having an impact? Can the population survive? With the discovery of two young ocelots on the Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge earlier this year, biologists are optimistic. We know the population is breeding. This summer, the Texas Department of Transportation will begin construction on 13 new wildlife crossings on roads where ocelots have been struck and killed in recent years. This is great news and should cut down on road mortality, the number one threat to the current Texas population. As U.S. Fish and Wildlife continues to protect and restore thorn scrub habitat required for ocelots, it is hoped that the current population can continue to expand. There is also a plan in the works to translocate an ocelot from Mexico to Texas in the future, which would bring much needed genetic diversity to our population.

An ocelot kitten recently caught on camera at Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge (Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

An ocelot kitten recently caught on camera at Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge (Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

What can we do to help save Texas ocelots here in Cincinnati? Come join the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) Greater Cincinnati Chapter in celebrating and raising funds for ocelots at our first Cinco de Gato event!  Held at Barrio in Northside on May 8, a portion of the proceeds from food and beverage sales along with funds raised from raffle items and merchandise will go to the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge to support ocelot conservation. Mark your calendar and look for more details to come later!

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March 17, 2015   No Comments

Lion Keeper’s Blog: The Cubbies Meet Daddy John!

We’ve got a lot to catch up on! I imagine there is a phase of parenthood (probably sometime during the “Terrible Two’s”), where parents just stop making entries in the baby book because every moment is devoted to keeping your newly mobile and rebellious child in line. Any free time you might have (that would previously have been devoted to meticulously filling in the baby book) is now spent on precious sleep. That’s the phase Imani has been in for the last few weeks.

The cubs’ coordination, activity levels, and attitudes have grown by leaps and bounds, and the result is one very busy, very tired, and very tolerant momma lioness. Imani does her best to keep eyes on all three cubs and to intervene when the play gets too rough. She steps in if someone (usually “Willa”) is getting picked on by the other two. And she’s been spending an awful lot more time up on the high shelf: a much-appreciated respite from the cubbies who cannot yet access this secret get-away.

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Imani on the shelf

Like any good mother, Imani is careful to vent her parenting frustrations out on anyone other than her cubs. Just the other day I was filling a bucket with soapy water to clean and I was greeted with a snarling Imani, hissing and charging at the mesh, giving me a full dose of 270 lb. cat-breath right in the face. Upon further investigation, I noted Kya relentlessly “attacking” Imani’s back leg like it was a fresh wildebeest kill on the Serengeti. If only there were another adult lion to take some of the focus off Imani.

Enter John.

Though lionesses in the wild will bring their cubs back to the pride as early as six weeks, we wanted to play it safe with our first-time father John, and so keepers waited a bit longer to make sure that their first meeting would be a positive one for all involved. After several weeks of “howdy’s” (where John got to interact nose-to-nose with his cubs through a protective mesh barrier), we decided that the time was right to open the door and let John meet his little “trouble cubbies” in person.

John tentatively stepped across the threshold and all five lions were sharing the same space for the first time. The first few moments were filled with an array of fascinating and fun vocalizations from the cubs. Uma, Kya and Willa huddled together close to mother Imani and stared up at John with interest and a little fear. John pressed himself against the mesh at the front of the enclosure and looked (appropriately enough) a little terrified himself. Imani stood protectively over the cubs and kept her eyes locked on John, ready to intervene if anyone stepped out of bounds.

Uma and Willa (from left to right) stare up at John.

Uma and Willa (from left to right) stare up at John.

It didn’t take long for the cubs’ brazen curiosity to outweigh any fear, and they approached John, displaying all the proper body-language of a submissive lion. They held their heads low, and looked up at John through their eyelashes. They cocked their heads from left to right and made friendly “greeting” vocalizations. Uma (our fearless little pioneer) was the first to approach John and tentatively sniffed and licked his back leg. John swung around, mouth agape and let out a warning bark to let Uma know “That’s close enough!”, and Imani promptly lunged forward, growled and gave John a swift paw to the face.

Uma jumps on John’s back.

Uma jumps on John’s back.

Kya gets an up-close look at John’s teeth.

Kya gets an up-close look at John’s teeth.

All three cubs scattered and ducked into a separate holding while John scrambled to get away and Imani pursued him with a mother’s wrath. At the end of the minor scuffle, John was left sitting in the corner with an appropriate look of bewilderment and apprehension on his face while Imani groomed her front paw, and a small tumbleweed of John’s mane settled on the ground between them. Clearly a line had been drawn in the sand: when it comes to these cubs, if you mess with them, you’ve gotta deal with Imani!

Now anyone who works regularly with John can tell you how smart he is, so it didn’t take long for him to learn this lesson. After things had calmed down, the cubs returned to visit with John again, and this time he did his best to keep a safe distance between himself and the cubs. Not wanting to incur Imani’s wrath for a second time, John dipped, dodged, and maneuvered around the cubs, crossing into separate holdings and even jumping up on the shelf to get away from them. He was content to just share space with them and not really interact beyond staring.

“There’s one behind me, isn’t there?” John seems nervous about Kya’s proximity to him.

“There’s one behind me, isn’t there?” John seems nervous about Kya’s proximity to him.

John investigates Uma from a safe distance.

John investigates Uma from a safe distance.

Over the course of the next several days, the keepers supervised as John would have “visitation hours” with his cubs. Each day, slow and steady progress was made. John altered his tactics and tried more gentle “huffing” vocalizations and avoidance behaviors to let the cubs know that he didn’t appreciate them climbing on his back. Imani stepped in and actively pulled cubs away from John if they were getting too bold or behaving inappropriately. The visiting sessions all tend to wrap-up in the same manner with the cubs finally giving up on pursuing John and instead opting for a nice long nap on the floor. John usually lays down next to them, seemingly enjoying their company during these quieter moments as Imani looks on protectively nearby.

The whole pride of 5 relaxing at the end of a visit.

The whole pride of 5 relaxing at the end of a visit.

Historically, John has always been appropriately submissive to Imani, reading her body language with pinpoint accuracy and always giving her the space she needs. He takes her corrections and discipline in stride and never retaliates. John’s laid back and gentle nature has always given me confidence that he would be a good father. We’ve still got a little ways to go before the whole pride can be left together and unattended, but we couldn’t have asked for a better start to the process. All five lions have behaved appropriately for the first introductions, and all signs point toward a cohesive and stable pride in the future.

Meanwhile, over in Kenya where the Zoo partners on a community-based conservation program called Rebuilding the Pride, Imani’s wild counterpart, Namunyak, has her paws full with her own new trio of cubs. Born sometime in late October or early November, Namunyak’s cubs are similar in age to Uma, Willa and Kya. And it appears that Namunyak and her cubs have returned to their pride right around the same time we introduced ours to John. Last week, following a much needed rainstorm, Namunyak and her cubs were spotted on a wildebeest kill, having rejoined their pride for the first time. Namunyak’s older set of cubs and another lioness, Ngiso, and her cubs were there as well. A total of 11 lions were counted in all. All the cubs were looking in much better condition than the last time they were photographed. With plenty of wildebeest calves around and more rain right around the corner, life for the lions as well as the Maasai and their cattle is looking up.

Namunyak and two of her young cubs (Photo: Guy Western/Rebuilding the Pride)

Namunyak and two of her young cubs (Photo: Guy Western/Rebuilding the Pride)

We are counting down the days until the warm weather of spring when we can finally share our pride with you all in person. Until then, we’ll continue to do our best to share pics, video, and blog posts with all of the lions’ adoring fans. As always, thank you so very much for your love and support! We’ll see you this spring!

February 26, 2015   11 Comments