Random header image... Refresh for more!

Category — Cats

Lion Keeper’s Blog: Uma and Becky

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.

becky1

Becky Wanner (top center) with fellow St. Louis keepers and young Imani.

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.

Becky and Imani

Becky and Imani

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.

Huruma

Huruma

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.

February 6, 2015   22 Comments

Saving Animals in the Wild: The Zoo’s Top Field Conservation Efforts of 2014

Happy New Year! As we look back on 2014, let’s reflect on some of the Zoo’s significant contributions to wildlife conservation in the field this past year:

Nasha and cubs snoozing on the  savannah

Nasha and cubs snoozing on the savannah

Helping Lions Thrive in Kenya’s South Rift Valley

Since 2011, the Zoo has partnered with the African Conservation Centre and the South Rift Association of Land Owners in Kenya on the Rebuilding the Pride program. This community-based conservation program combines Maasai tradition and modern technology to restore a healthy lion population while reducing the loss of livestock to lions in Kenya’s South Rift Valley. Once down to a low of about 10 known lions in the area, the population has grown to more than 65 lions in 2014. This past April, a lioness named Nasha gave birth to another litter, this one containing three cubs. That the population is growing in the South Rift Valley at a time when lion populations are severely declining across the continent overall is significant and a testament to program’s community-based approach.

Sumatran rhinos at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia

Sumatran rhinos at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia

A Giant Step Forward for Sumatran Rhinos in the Wild

The Zoo has been committed to saving the Sumatran rhino for 25 years. Despite the devastating blow of the loss of our female rhino, Suci, back in March, the Zoo continues to work to conserve and protect the species. In 2014, a Debt-for-Nature deal was struck between the United States and Indonesia. In return for lowering the debt Indonesia owes to the United States, it will commit nearly $12 million towards the conservation and protection of critically endangered species, including the Sumatran rhino, and their habitats over the next seven years. The debt swap was made possible by a contribution of about $11.2 million from the U.S. government under the Tropical Forest Conservation Act (first introduced by Ohio Senator Rob Portman in 1998) and $560,000 from other organizations funneled through Conservation International. The Zoo was proud to help secure this funding by pledging a major gift.

Pollinating American chestnut trees with cryopreserved pollen

Pollinating American chestnut trees with cryopreserved pollen

Saving American Chestnut Trees with Cryopreserved Pollen

The magnificent American chestnut tree once ranged over the entire Eastern United States, but was almost entirely obliterated by blight by the mid-twentieth century. Over the years, breeders have been working to develop a resistant tree, and one of their key tools is pollen. American chestnut pollen rapidly declines in viability so maintaining important lines of pollen from year to year is difficult. In 1993, pollen was cryopreserved (frozen) in liquid nitrogen at the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW). Last spring, some of that pollen was removed and used to successfully pollinate trees at the American Chestnut Foundation’s farm in Virginia. Paternity testing will be done at CREW this winter, but the indications are very good that cryopreservation can indeed maintain pollen viability for at least 20 years—a fact that should provide a new tool to those working to save this majestic American tree.

Kea Conservation Trust staff conducting kea research (Photo: Nigel Adams)

Kea Conservation Trust staff conducting kea research (Photo: Nigel Adams)

Committing to Kea Conservation in New Zealand

Over the past few years, the Zoo has supported the Kea Conservation Trust’s (KCT) efforts to protect and study New Zealand’s mountain parrot, the kea, in the wild. In 2014, the Zoo stepped up its efforts with a commitment to support the Kea-Community Conflict Response Plan, a multi-year proactive community-focused conflict response and resolution program. Funds from the Zoo support a key personnel position, the Community Volunteers Coordinator, who can respond to conflict situations that arise. Funds will also enable KCT staff to enhance their conflict resolution skills by participating in a Human-Wildlife Conflict Collaboration Workshop. Additionally, Zoo aviculturists will join the KCT team for kea nest monitoring and field work over the next couple of years.

Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, installs a camera trap in Bhutan. (Photo: Steve Winter)

Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, installs a camera trap in Bhutan. (Photo: Steve Winter)

Pledging Support for Panthera’s Tigers Forever Initiative

The Zoo is committed to ensuring the survival of endangered tigers of which there are fewer than 3,200 remaining in the wild. In 2014, we have pledged multi-year support of the tiger conservation efforts of Panthera, the leading international wild cat conservation organization with a mission to ensure the future of wild cats through scientific leadership and global conservation action. To ensure the tiger’s survival, Panthera works across Asia with numerous partners to end the poaching of tigers for the illegal wildlife trade, prevent tiger deaths due to conflict with humans and livestock, and protect tiger prey species and habitat. Through their program, Tigers Forever, Panthera works to protect and secure key tiger populations and ensure connectivity between sites so that tigers can live long into the future.

Wetlands in restoration at EcOhio Farm

Wetlands in restoration at EcOhio Farm

Restoring Native Wetlands and Wildlife in Mason, Ohio

In 1995, a 529-acre farm in Mason, Ohio, now called the EcOhio Farm, was willed to the Zoo with the guideline that it could never be developed unless it is to further the mission of the Zoo. Over the past few years, the Zoo has worked to restore 30 of the farm’s acres to its original state of a wet sedge meadow, providing refuge for a diversity of native wildlife. Since restoration began in 2012, drainage tiles have been removed and more than 200 native plant species and thousands of trees have been planted on the site. The wetland is returning to its natural state very quickly. Already, it has attracted more than 135 native bird species, including bald eagles, bobolinks and killdeer, which would never have been there when it was a cornfield. Though not currently open to the public, walking trails and a small education center may be implemented in the future to provide opportunities to explore the wetland.

Cincinnati Zoo gorillas, Asha and  her infant, Mondika, named for the field conservation project (Photo: Michelle Curley)

Cincinnati Zoo gorillas, Asha and her infant, Mondika, named for the field conservation project (Photo: Michelle Curley)

Strengthening our Support for Gorillas in the Republic of Congo

Over the past 20 years, the Zoo has partnered with the Nouabale Ndoki Project (NNP) in the Republic of Congo, which includes the Mbeli Bai Study, the longest running study of the critically endangered western lowland gorilla. The Zoo also supports work in an area called Mondika where gorillas are habituated for up close research and ecotourism. Habituation is a process through which the wild gorillas become accustomed to and tolerate the presence of people that enables researchers and tourists to observe them up close. The Zoo recently helped facilitate the habituation of a second group of gorillas, and entered into an agreement in 2014 to support the habituation of a third group over the next three years. Special thanks goes to Gorilla Glue, our official gorilla conservation sponsor!

All of these projects and more couldn’t happen without your support of the Zoo. Here’s to you and the Zoo making more great strides for wildlife conservation in 2015!

January 7, 2015   No Comments

Lion Keeper’s Blog: Meet the Cubs!

Cub #1 calling out on top of the hackberry log after it just nursed.

Cub #1 calling out on top of the hackberry log after it just nursed.

For all of you who have been pining to meet the cubs and lamenting that they aren’t on exhibit, allow me to offer a small consolation: lion cubs this young are actually a little bit boring! Now, before you gasp at my impassivity, allow me to explain. In the wild, lions are inactive for up to 20 hours a day. That means there are only 4 hours a day where lions aren’t sleeping or resting. What I’ve learned in the 3 weeks following November 13th is that lion cubs and nursing mothers are even less exciting! For 3 weeks, we’ve seen little more than nursing, sleeping and grooming from our young little bunch. But in this last week (the cubs’ 4th week of life), something magical has started to happen.

The cubs are finally becoming more mobile and a little braver, and with these new developments, their little personalities are beginning to shine through! Since their sexes are still a mystery to us, we’ve been referring to the cubs based on their birth order (Cub #1 was the first born, then came Cub #2 followed by Cub #3). Here are some of my observations of the newest members of our African lion pride.

Cub #1: Fearless Leader, Bold and Stubborn

Cub #1 was the first into the world and has continued to be the pioneer of the group ever since.  Cub #1 has always appeared to be the largest of the 3, and it’s hands-down the bravest in the bunch. #1 mastered the art of crawling outside of the nest area first, scaling the hackberry log and sometimes tumbling head-first to the ground below in order to gain unchallenged access to Imani for some prime nursing time and one-on-one attention from “Mama”.

Cub #1 is the most vocal of the bunch as well, often standing on the hackberry log and just crying out to anyone who’ll listen. Sometimes Cub #1 will do this vocalizing immediately after a private nursing session, so I’m inclined to think that maybe it just likes to hear itself make noise? Imani seems to be the toughest on Cub #1, often batting it around and almost “playing” with it in a manner she doesn’t usually employ with the other two. But Cub #1 can absolutely handle the tough-love and isn’t shy about letting mom know if it isn’t appreciated. Cub #1 seems very strong-willed and stubborn, relentlessly pursuing its interests even when Imani tries her best to keep #1 safely inside of the straw nesting area. And on more than one occasion, I’ve caught Cub #1 chewing on Imani’s tail. :) If genetics play any role in the development of personality, then Cub #1’s independence is most definitely from Imani’s side of the gene pool.

IMG_1505

Cub #1 wanders away for an adventure!

Cub #2: The Pacifist, Easy-Going and Low-Maintenance

Cub #2 flew under the keepers’ radars for a good long while, not really standing out for any reasons (good or bad). Cub #2 seems to contribute the least to Imani’s parental challenges, often staying put wherever it’s placed and waiting patiently for Imani to return to the nest. Cub #2 rarely calls to or seeks out Imani and simply takes the opportunity to nurse whenever it’s readily available. Cub #2 patiently accepts being groomed and never resists when Imani attempts to pick it up. Whenever a skirmish breaks out between siblings over a nipple, Cub #2 is the most likely to compromise by relocating to another teat. “It’s okay, I’ll just go nurse from this nipple instead.”

Cub #2 rarely strays away from the group and seems the most dependent upon the companionship of its siblings. I watched once as Cub #2 was awoken from a nap by the sounds of Cub #1 nursing outside of the nest box. Cub #2 got up to investigate and stopped on top of the hackberry log, staring in the direction of Imani and Cub #1. It looked like #2 was trying to gather the courage to go over the log and join the nursing party, but after a couple of feeble attempts to make it over the log, #2 simply gave up and went back to nap beside the warmth and comfort of its other sibling. Adventurous is not a word I’d use to describe #2. Cub #2’s affinity for companionship and its penchant for the safe and familiar remind me very much of John!

Cub #2 waits patiently on the hackberry log for Imani to return to the nest area.

Cub #2 waits patiently on the hackberry log for Imani to return to the nest area.

Cub #2 (front) stays close to its sibling (Cub #3) in the nest area.

Cub #2 (front) stays close to its sibling (Cub #3) in the nest area.

Cub #3: Scrappy Underdog, The Come-Back Kid!

Cub #3 has been on my radar from the moment it was born. Easily the runt of the litter, #3 has had some struggles from the beginning. Unlike its siblings who picked up nursing quite easily, Cub #3 really had to practice and develop the skill-set. Keepers would watch as Cub #3 would set out in the direction of Imani and its nursing siblings, and unnervingly, in many cases, Cub #3 would struggle to make it to a teat. Sometimes it would randomly turn and start heading in another direction, and sometimes it would make it all the way up to Imani’s belly, only to keep going and climb up and over her back instead of stopping to nurse. On most occasions when Cub #3 did manage to find itself in the correct position to nurse, it would fight for an already occupied nipple instead of latching on to one of the two readily available ones.

We watched apprehensively as Cub #3 struggled, but it always seemed to manage some quality nursing time every day. To our relief, Cub #3 slowly began to get the knack of nursing and began to catch up to its siblings in growth and development. Though Cub #3 still fights for already occupied nipples, it seems to have developed an effective technique to win the prized teat. By sticking its paw in a sibling’s face and pushing them out of the way, Cub #3 has often avoided the unpleasant task of warming up his own nipple for nursing. ;) Cub #3 is usually always the “last one to the party” sleeping in instead of getting up to nurse, and sometimes electing to climb over top of Mama and its siblings instead of taking its turn being groomed. From what I’ve seen, Cub #3 is its own beautiful blend of both parents.

cub3

Cub #3 misses out on nursing because it overslept.

yawning cub

Cub #3 yawns and gets ready for a nap on top of Cub #1.

Boys or Girls?

We still aren’t certain of the cubs’ sexes because the keepers aren’t handling them unnecessarily at this time. Accurately sexing young felids can be tricky, so we don’t want to make any false reports (but I do have my guesses for each cub!). In all likeliness, the cubs will have their first round of vaccines and their first wellness checks at approximately 8 weeks of age, and we’ll be able to sex the cubs at that time as well. This should give us all something to look forward to mid-January, and maybe John can help us with the big gender reveals!! :) Stay tuned and as always, thank you so much for all of your love and support! Happy Holidays from Imani, John, Cubs 1, 2, and 3 and the Africa team keepers!

December 13, 2014   14 Comments