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Category — Keeper’s Komments

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.


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.



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

Keeper Dog Log: Painted Dog Pups On The Move

Annnnd…. they’re off!

Imara and Brahma certainly have their paws full now! The puppies are on the move and going on new adventures outside of the nest box for a couple minutes at a time. They have greater mobility at this point so they are much more active and coordinated. Their ears have unfurled and their eyes have opened and now they have places to go! The puppies seem to be well within the range for normal development.

Since the puppies are more mobile now, it’s interesting to see what Brahma and Imara do with all of the little ones waddling around. What is really cool to see, is that the pups put themselves away. When they are finished exploring or bugging mom and dad, it’s like a puppy parade back into the box.

The first time keepers observed them coming out of the box, Brahma seemed a little shell shocked. He seemed a little overwhelmed and didn’t look like he knew what to do. You would often find him standing guard between the two dens so that the puppies stayed in one area. Now that he has gotten the hang of it, he has been observed greeting and getting down for the pups. Meanwhile, Imara puts her face at their level, play bowing and greeting them. They swarm around her like little bees, crawling over one another to get to her. These interactions, between the parents and the puppies, are extremely important. The behaviors we have seen, like the play bow and the licking of muzzles, solidifies the bonding between all of the dogs. Painted Dogs are very social creatures and these relationships keep the pack unified and successful.

There are still many changes to come. In a week or so, their beautiful yellow color will appear, making them even more unique in their appearance. They will be able to consume regurgitated food from mom and dad and they will also start spending more time away from the box. The last couple of weeks have been really exciting to watch the puppies grow and play. As the pups reach these very critical milestones, we will keep you updated on their progress.

February 4, 2015   3 Comments

Samantha: The Grand Old Lady of the Cincinnati Zoo

Today we celebrate Samantha the gorilla’s 45th birthday!

Sam and Samantha

Sam and Samantha

There are about four reptiles living at the Zoo today that have estimated ages older than Samantha, but she is the oldest animal with a confirmed birth date and the oldest non-reptile. Daughter of the legendary founder gorillas King Tut and Penelope, Samantha was born here on January 31, 1970. She and another gorilla, Sam, were born about a week apart and they were the first two gorilla babies born and raised at the Cincinnati Zoo. They were hand raised with the assistance of Good Samaritan Hospital, hence the names Sam and Samantha.They were huge celebrities featured in dozens of articles, photos, postcards and fanfare.

Samantha has been here to experience all of the changes in philosophy that have transformed the Zoo from an old school menagerie to a modern day zoo. Born in the old Ape House in 1970 where the gorillas lived inside year round, Samantha moved to the first naturalistic outdoor gorilla habitat anywhere, Gorilla World, in 1978.

Gorilla World (Photo: Dave Jenike)

Gorilla World (Photo: Dave Jenike)

She has experienced innovations in animal nutrition from a high fruit-based diet to today’s high variety bulky green fiber-rich nutritionally balanced diet. She has also experienced the start of comprehensive animal enrichment efforts at the Zoo that provide for animal welfare as much as their physical needs. Over 10 years ago, she was here when we began formal operant conditioning programs at the Zoo as well.

Samantha has also experienced the change over from primarily pulling baby gorillas for hand-rearing to encouraging mother-rearing through improved husbandry and social behavior management. She is the best mother gorilla in the history of the Zoo and has given birth to six gorillas. Samantha’s first daughter, Madge, was born in the early 1980s. She was named after the late great iconic long time Zoo Volunteer Madge Van Buskirk.

Samantha with one of her six babies

Samantha with one of her six babies

Probably the most intelligent gorilla at the Zoo, Samantha is one of the most socially savvy gorillas, too. She has long been the strong matriarchal leader no matter which individuals are in her group. Samantha has lived with over 36 individual gorillas including: Sam, Gigi, Ramses, Kamari, Amani, Rosie, Penelope, Hatari, Tara, Mahari, Bibi, Madge, Muke, Mlinzi, Babec, Ndume, Kweli, Harry, Jackie, Tufani, Colossus, Kima Kubwa, Chaka, Samson, Chewie, Mara, Kijito, Kicho, Cecil, Shanta, Jomo, Bakari, Asha, Anju, Gladys and Mondika. In recent years, she has toned her leadership role back some, but is still respected among the other gorillas.

Samantha has served as an inspirational ambassador for both ex situ and in situ gorilla conservation programs and she is revered among the primate staff and her followers. I even named my daughter after her. (By the way, if you ever should name your daughter after a gorilla, apparently you should not tell her fourth grade class that fact during a visit to the Zoo. I thought it was cool, but being called “gorilla girl” by mean little boys can be a hard thing to live with, I hear.)

At 45 years old, Samantha still seems to be going strong. She is engaged in all of our programs, including operant conditioning, and is one of the best students. In recent years, she has been trained for awake cardiac ultrasound exams and the ticker is looking good. Samantha has seen it all and hopefully she sticks around for a long while to see a whole lot more.

Samantha and her son, Samson

Samantha and her son, Samson

January 31, 2015   2 Comments