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Category — Africa exhibit

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   7 Comments

Uma, Kya, Willa and their Wild Lion Cousins

Uma, Kya and Willa (Photo: Wendy Rice)

Uma, Kya and Willa (Photo: Wendy Rice)

As we prepare to introduce our visitors to John and Imani’s cubs – Uma, Kya and Willa – this spring, we are also celebrating the success of our efforts to support wild lion populations. We work with the Maasai communities in Kenya’s South Rift Valley to promote the coexistence of lions, people and livestock. A partnership with SORALO (South Rift Association of Land Owners), the Rebuilding the Pride program is based out of two communal ranches, or conservancies, called Olkirimatian and Shompole.

The South Rift Valley in Kenya is sandwiched between Maasai Mara and Amboseli National Parks.

The South Rift Valley in Kenya is sandwiched between Maasai Mara and Amboseli National Parks.

In 2014, the lion populations on Olkirimatian and Shompole continued to grow and thrive with 16 cubs born in 2012 and 2013 surviving to adulthood. Two radio-collared lionesses that the program monitors, Nasha and Namunyak, also recently gave birth to new litters of cubs. Just like Imani, Namunyak has a trio of cubs tagging along behind her. Namunyak’s cubs have not yet been given names as it is Maasai tradition to wait until they are at least a year old.

Namunyak's cubs (Photo: Guy Western)

Namunyak’s cubs (Photo: Guy Western)

As the lion population grows, so does the area across which they range, resulting in reports of lion sightings in new areas. In response, the Rebuilding the Pride team has added two new local Maasai resource assessors and a mobile monitoring unit. This allows the program to expand the area it covers and reach even more remote regions. The role of the mobile monitoring unit, equipped with tents, cameras and GPS, is to track lion and livestock movements, identify conflict hotspots, share this information with livestock herders and report cases of lost livestock to the rapid response team, which then addresses the situation.

Rebuilding the Pride's Mobile Monitoring Unit (Photo: Rebuilding the Pride)

Rebuilding the Pride’s Mobile Monitoring Unit (Photo: Rebuilding the Pride)

In 2013, the team began developing a lion identification (ID) database, allowing for photographic documentation and identification of individual lions based on whisker spots. Much effort was put into updating and improving the ID system over the past year. To date, the team has created individual photographic IDs for 35 of the 60-70 lions, which is about half the population in the Olkirimatian and Shompole regions. Being able to recognize individual lions greatly enhances the team’s ability to gain new insight into the lion population.

ID photos for Muchezo (Photo: Rebuilding the Pride)

ID photos for Muchezo (Photo: Rebuilding the Pride)

Whisker spot ID information for Muchezo (Source: Rebuilding the Pride)

Whisker spot ID information for Muchezo (Source: Rebuilding the Pride)

Rebuilding the Pride isn’t just about increasing the number of lions, however. Improving the livelihoods of the local people is critical to promoting coexistence. In addition to building local capacity as resource assessors, the Olkirimatian Women’s Group continues to manage the Lale’enok Resource Center that serves as Rebuilding the Pride headquarters. They also sell beadwork and solar lanterns and have begun a new enterprise this year – beekeeping. Several apiaries were established and the first harvest took place in November.

Maasai women involved in the beekeeping enterprise (Photo: Rebuilding the Pride)

Maasai women involved in the beekeeping enterprise (Photo: Rebuilding the Pride)

These are just a few highlights from the past year. WCPO.com recently interviewed me about Rebuilding the Pride so check out the article, if you’d like to learn more.We look forward to continued development and success in 2015, and can’t wait to watch both Imani’s and Namunyak’s cubs grow over the coming year.

 

February 12, 2015   No Comments

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.

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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