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Category — Africa exhibit

Keeper’s Blog: Welcome to Cincinnati, Little Ones!!

Imani and John are parents! On Thursday, November 13th, African lion Imani gave birth to 3 beautiful, healthy cubs.

John and Imani

John and Imani on the day they were introduced.

I could tell the minute I walked into the lion building that it was the big day!  Before I explain myself, here’s a little background on the set-up in our lion holding area: Every night for the last week or so, we’ve kept John separated from Imani in order to provide her a safe and secure denning area for birthing.  We had, however, been allowing John to “visit” with Imani in the mornings to maintain their bond.  Most mornings, that meant that John and Imani would lounge around in the same holding together with John staring at Imani for long periods of time and Imani napping on the floor.  On Thursday morning, however, our pair was having some very different and confused interactions.

Imani was really active, going from one holding to another and spending a lot of time rubbing on the mesh, and shift doors.  She seemed to be irritated, uncomfortable and oddly affectionate all at once!  She even presented herself to John a couple of times and when he tried to mount her, she swung around and smacked him in the face!  Then she followed him around the holding and nipped him on the side a couple of times, as if to say “You’re the reason I feel like this!”  Poor John was pretty bewildered by her behavior, but I knew exactly what that behavior meant.  As females get closer to delivering their cubs, they will begin to show less tolerance for the male’s presence in their den area.  In other words, the labor process was getting started and Imani felt it was time for John to go “sit in the waiting room”. ;)  So we shifted him across the hall into his own holdings and secured Imani into her private and cozy birthing den.


Imani getting ready to deliver first cub

She seemed to relax a little bit now that John was safely away from her, but she still appeared quite uncomfortable.  From our video monitors, we observed lots of tail smacking, changing positions constantly, licking her abdomen and genital area, and just general discomfort.  This behavior continued throughout the morning and early afternoon.  Then, at 3:28pm, we saw Imani jump up make a lap around her enclosure, and a tiny paw was visible sticking out under her tail!  Imani looked so freaked out and confused with that first cub; “what in the world is happening?!” was written on her face.  She did this frantic spin move and the little cub practically came flying out of her!  Thankfully, she began cleaning it up immediately and we could see that it was moving around!  Everyone breathed a big sigh of relief and continued to watch the monitors anxiously.



We could see Imani having contractions leading up to the second birth.  Her abdomen would tense and her back would arch.  It was more than 2 hours before the second cub was born at 5:45pm.  This time, Imani seemed much less surprised by the process and she delivered the second cub quite easily. As before, she cleaned this one up and even scooted it over into the same area with its sibling.  She then laid down in front of both of them and that was the first time we noticed how exhausted she looked.  She tried to stay awake, but her eyelids kept shutting and she finally just laid her head in the straw for a quick nap as the new cubs rooted around and began their first attempts at nursing.

37 minutes after the arrival of the second cub, Imani was sprawled out and looked completely asleep as the 2 little lions fumbled around trying to figure out how to nurse.  Then all of a sudden, her body produced a large contraction and just like that, the third cub was half-way out!  Poor Imani shot out of her laying position and spun around to lick herself just as the third cub came out.  She seemed the most disturbed by that third and final birth.  She even sent a half-hearted hiss in the direction of the 3rd cub and didn’t clean it right away.  It seemed like she was irritated that this 3rd baby had aroused her from such a deep sleep with no warning at all!  She must have forgiven it though, because she finally went over to clean it up and welcome it to the world.

The keeper and curator staff continued to watch over Momma and her babies for the next 6 hours to make sure that all the cubs had been delivered and the labor was finished.  It was amazing to see how mobile the cubs were right from the beginning.  They instinctively began crawling and searching for Imani’s teats to start nursing.  Similarly, it was so impressive to watch Imani’s maternal instincts kick into gear.  She was so gentle maneuvering around the cubs, cautious and aware of each of them in the nesting area.  She laid on her side and even held her leg up so that the babies could easily access her milk.  Slowly, but surely, one after another, all three cubs had latched onto a nipple and Imani lay cooperatively and unmoving so that they could eat.

3 cubs nursing

3 cubs nursing

Imani has been such an attentive and gentle mother.  She’s grooming each of them regularly and stimulating them to go to the bathroom (as she should).  She isn’t entirely comfortable with picking up the cubs yet.  Early on she tried with one cub and it started wiggling around frantically so she dropped it and just looked confused.  On one occasion, the group of 3 wound up spread out all over the holding area and it was almost comical reading Imani’s facial expressions.  She was clearly annoyed that her wriggly babies had wondered so far from each other, making it difficult for her to keep track of them all.  She went over to the cub farthest away from the other two and gently picked it up in her mouth around its head and shoulders.  She brought it out onto the heated concrete area near the other two cubs and used her paws to scoot them all together into a lump of baby lions.  Then she laid down right in front of them as if to say “The nipples are right here! Don’t go wandering off again!”

She’s doing so well, and I know you all would be proud of her!  It’s been amazing to watch this new and gentle side of Imani emerge as she takes care of her cubs.  So far, all three cubs have been nursing regularly and spending most of their time sleeping.  They go on little adventures now and then (mostly crawling over Momma and each other).  So far, all indications point towards happy and healthy babies, but we’re not out of the woods yet.  The first few weeks of their lives are absolutely crucial and keepers are taking care to give Imani plenty of privacy and alone time with the babies.  It will be a while before we are able to go in and perform the cubs’ first wellness exams and determine genders.


We will do our best to keep everyone informed about John and Imani’s new family in the weeks to come!!  In order to give Imani and the cubs the privacy and bonding time they need, keepers will be staying pretty hands-off for a little while.  For this reason, our lion cub coverage will be pretty limited to “screen shots” from the video monitors, but as soon as we feel Imani is comfortable enough with our presence, we’ll try to get some good pics and video of our new additions!  As always, thank you so much for all of your love, support and understanding during this special time!  So excited to have 3 new lions at the Cincinnati Zoo!

November 19, 2014   3 Comments

How do you diagnose pregnancy in a lion?

Many visitors to the Zoo have met our two African lions, John and Imani, in the new Africa exhibit. These two young cats were paired up earlier this year with the hope that they would breed and produce their first litter of cubs in the near future. The good news is that breeding activity has been observed on several occasions this past year, and, after at least one pseudopregnancy, it appears that Imani is now pregnant and due to give birth within the next month. Which raises the question – how do you diagnose pregnancy in a lion anyway?

Imani (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Imani (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Scientists at the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) commonly use three methods for pregnancy diagnosis in wildlife species:  ultrasonography, fecal progesterone analysis, and urine relaxin analysis. Ultrasonography remains the gold standard since visualization of a fetus with a strong heartbeat is the definitive proof of pregnancy. CREW frequently uses abdominal ultrasonography to diagnose and monitor pregnancies in our domestic cats (see below). However, this method can be challenging to apply with a potentially dangerous carnivore, like Imani. Through the Zoo’s operant conditioning program, Imani eventually may be trained to allow voluntary abdominal ultrasound exams, but this method is currently not an option with her.

CREW scientists conduct an ultrasound on a domestic cat.

CREW scientists conduct an ultrasound on a domestic cat.

The second approach for pregnancy diagnosis is the use of fecal progesterone analysis. Lions, like other felids, show an increase in fecal progesterone levels shortly after ovulation that is detectable using CREW’s hormone assays. If lions ovulate but don’t conceive, they will have a pseudopregnancy that lasts 50 to 60 days and then progesterone will decline back to baseline levels. If progesterone concentrations stay elevated beyond 60 days post-breeding, then the female is most likely pregnant. Imani’s fecal hormone profile (below) shows progesterone levels increasing coincident with her last breeding activity and staying elevated through at least 66 days post-breeding (the last fecal sample tested).

Imani's fecal hormone profile

Imani’s fecal hormone profile

The third option for pregnancy diagnosis involves measurement of another hormone, relaxin, that is produced by the placenta and excreted in the urine. CREW has helped to pioneer the use of a bench-top relaxin test for pregnancy diagnosis with urine from cats. Our previous research has found that pregnant domestic cats and Pallas’ cats produce high levels of urinary relaxin that are detectable with the bench-top test, but pregnant cheetahs and clouded leopards apparently do not. Imani is the first lion that we have evaluated late in a suspected pregnancy. Urine samples collected from Imani at day 73 and 74 post-breeding were both positive for relaxin (below, circled line in window #2), providing further presumptive evidence of an ongoing pregnancy. In the absence of a sonogram showing a viable fetus, the positive results from the progesterone and relaxin assays provide our best evidence that Imani is pregnant.

Imani's pregnancy test

Imani’s pregnancy test

Hopefully, Imani will confirm our diagnosis in the next few weeks with the anticipated birth of her first litter of cubs. Since Imani will be a first-time mom, she will be provided with a quiet, off-exhibit den area to give birth and bond with her cubs, and likely will remain off-exhibit until early spring when the cubs are a bit older.

October 28, 2014   No Comments

Introducing the Animals of AFRICA!

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is excited to announce the grand opening of the next phase of its AFRICA exhibit! Here, visitors will immerse themselves into the African Savannah, featuring East African architecture, landscape, and natural elements, while taking in the sights and sounds of one of the most majestic countries in the world, right in their own back yard.

The Cincinnati Zoo’s new signature exhibit, Painted Dog Valley, is the featured exhibit in this phase of the opening. The exhibit highlights one of the most predatory and endangered species in all of Africa—the African painted dog. Known for their famously large, round ears and beautifully “painted”, multi-colored coats, the African painted dog exhibit will have a crystal clear waterfall, a large eye-to-eye viewing window, and multiple vantage points. At the turn of the 20th century there were more than 500,000 painted dogs in 39 countries. Today, there are only 3,000 dogs in Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa combined, making them the rarest species on the African continent.

Wild Dog_AndyWithers

In addition to African painted dogs, visitors will enjoy the breath-taking beauty of a new open-vista exhibit, featuring, impala, Thomson’s gazelle, ostrich, pink-backed pelican, and Ruppell’s vulture, to name a few! Visitors will watch as a variety of species graze on tall grasses, make stops at the watering hole, and laze about under the summer sun.  Over the summer this herd will continue to grow, as animals are added in phases to ensure a calm and safe introduction to each other and the exhibit space.

impala_Christian Sperka

This systematic approach is a necessary precaution needed when introducing multiple species in one exhibit. These precautions ensure the animal’s comfort and safety, while also allowing keepers the time needed to carefully evaluate each step along the way.

Phase one, the addition of pelicans, vultures, and cranes, is currently underway and Zoo guests could see them together this weekend.  Toward the end of next week, once those animals are acclimated, the Zoo hopes to start the second phase with the addition of the ostrich.  Once the animals are settled, the Zoo will then add guinea fowl. And finally, the impala, gazelle, and lesser kudu will be introduced. This final phase could happen late summer or early fall, depending on the time frame for earlier introductions and each individual animals temperament.

A third exhibit space has also been completed during this exhibit opening – the future site of meerkats.  Currently,  this exhibit will be home to the Zoo’s bat-eared foxes, with meerkats arriving Summer 2015!

The Zoo hopes visitors will enjoy meeting the new painted dogs, seeing the bat-eared foxes in their new home, and watching the phased introduction as the herd grows.

Africa is now open!

June 27, 2014   No Comments