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Lion Keeper’s Blog: The Trouble Cubbies

Weeks 5 and 6 of the lion cubs’ lives have been some of the most exciting so far!  The level of physical activity we’ve seen from the cubs has grown exponentially!  Our sweet, sleepy little lion lumps have morphed into bold, mischievous and active cubs. They are even starting to look more like little lions!  Their teeth have erupted and they are beginning to run (sort of) and stalk each other.  They’re still a little unsteady on their feet… often walking like they’re on the rocking deck of a ship at sea.  But with each passing day, they grow more coordinated and purposeful in their adventures.  One of their favorite pastimes is playing with Imani’s tail tuft! Sometimes Imani will get up to walk away and whichever cub is attached at the time gets drug around for a little ride.

Cub #2’s newly erupted teeth are easily visible in this photo.

Cub #2’s newly erupted teeth are easily visible in this photo.

Cub #1 continues to live up to its reputation as the group’s pioneer.  Often #1 would come over to the mesh and try to steal little bites whenever the keepers fed Imani.  At first, it seemed like #1 was just suckling on the meat and exploring it, rather than actually eating it.  Fortunately, Imani’s favorite diet item (a nutritionally complete ground meat) is the perfect starter meat for a baby carnivore.  The mushy texture is easily swallowed and requires little to no chewing or tearing.  Cub #1 has definitely developed a taste for it, and now keepers are actually able to feed tiny little meatballs to Cub #1 straight through the mesh!

Cub #1 poses for a picture.

Cub #2 continues to be the shyest and most reserved of the bunch.  Cub #2 is still a little apprehensive about the keepers getting too close, but it seems to find its strength from its siblings.  If Cubs 1 and 3 come over to investigate, Cub #2 usually isn’t far behind.  But Cub #2 definitely likes to keep a safe healthy distance between itself and the strange two-leggers.  Although 2 usually prefers to observe its siblings’ antics from a safe distance, it is constantly pushed outside of its comfort zone by its bold and inquisitive siblings.  From what I’ve observed of “Cub World”, you don’t always have a say in whether or not you participate in playtime.

Cub #3 surprised everyone when it became the first cub to successfully cross over the threshold between holding rooms and venture next door!  All 3 cubs had been working on tackling this milestone for the last couple of weeks, but it was our little underdog cub that finally made the big climb (which, incidentally, is about 10 inches tall).  Once cub #3 had crossed over, it seemed to open the flood gates and then all 3 cubs spent the next hour or so investigating this magical new space (which is nearly identical to the nest box they’ve occupied for their first 5 weeks of life).

Imani, always the prudent mother, followed them over and spent a while trying to round them up and replace them in the nesting den.  Unfortunately, it was a bit like the chocolate factory episode of “I Love Lucy”.  Every time Imani managed to get one cub back over into the nest box, another was already crawling across the threshold back into the taboo holding next door.

The cubs’ great southern exploration provided John with a new, completely unrestricted view of them for the first time from across the hall.  With no “privacy plywood” impeding his line of sight, John watched in fascination as his little progeny tottered around excitedly and thwarted Imani’s efforts to round them up and relocate them to the nest area.  Poor Imani seemed a little exasperated by her unruly and uncooperative cubs and eventually crossed over into the nesting area, laid down and seemingly gave up on trying to corral the wily bunch.  Fortunately, within about 10 minutes, the cubs seemed to realize that Momma had “disappeared” and all three climbed back over the threshold on their own to rejoin her for a quick nursing session and a long recuperative nap from such an laborious adventure.


All 3 cubs are kept in the holding den using the mesh howdy door so Imani can have a few minutes of alone time.


Imani rolls on the ground, enjoying a rare moment of alone time!

The next day, when keepers gave the cubs and Imani access to the neighboring den again, Imani seemed much more relaxed about the set-up.  She didn’t even try to bring the cubs back into the nesting area when they crossed the threshold, and she seemed to have resigned herself to the fact that the cubs could now go back and forth as they pleased and there wasn’t much she could do about it.  Most days, Imani and the cubs actually choose to spend most of their time in the “new den” which sits directly across from John, right in his line of sight.  It’s a fortunate turn of events that will actually help us towards transitioning John back into the group and establishing a proper lion pride.


John waits patiently across the hall to meet the cubs.

On the horizon for the family: The cubs’ first wellness exams (will be scheduled mid-January) where we will finally learn the genders of our 3 cubs!  Shortly after that, we’ll begin the process of introductions to Dad!

Three Cubs

Cub #3 licking Cub #2’s ear. Cub #1 looking unimpressed in front.

December 31, 2014   9 Comments

Africa Keeper Blog: Lesser Kudu Calvin & Hobbes

We can’t wait for spring when we’ll introduce two lesser kudu, “Calvin” and “Hobbes,” to Cincinnati Zoo’s Africa exhibit!

Calvin, born May 2013, and Hobbes, born August 2013, came to us from the St. Louis Zoo. They have small horns that will continue to grow and spiral with age.

Male lesser kudu can weigh more than 200 pounds and have a blue-grey color with thin white stripes, huge ears, and spiraled horns.  Calvin and Hobbes are right on track with their weight, tipping the scales at 150 and 125 pounds. The females do not get as large and do not have horns. They also are typically more of a red-brown color.  Kudu are most active at night and can camouflage well in dense thickets during the day. In the wild, their favorite things to eat are bush and tree leaves, shoot and twigs, fruits, and grasses.  Here at the Cincinnati Zoo, they get a specialized highly nutritious grain formulated for herbivores and orchard/alfalfa grass.

Antelope like the lesser kudu, can be tricky animals to work with.  Not because they have scary teeth and sharp claws, or because they have natural instincts to kill, but for the opposite reason. Everyone else wants to eat them! Imagine being the “potato chip” of the African Savannah, where you are a snack to all sorts of predators.  Lesser kudu can run up to 60 miles per hour but still have to constantly be on the look out for common predators like leopards, hyenas, and painted dogs. Because of this, antelope are naturally (and understandably) easily frightened and sometimes move before they think.  Luckily for us, Calvin and Hobbes were champs when it was their time to move into our brand new Africa hoofstock barn.  Everything went well and they are settling in nicely. We have been working hard to make sure they feel comfortable in their new home and with their new caregivers, including me!

I enjoy all the animals I work with, but Calvin and Hobbes have a special place in my heart.  Each morning we do an initial check on all of our animals to make sure everyone is doing alright.  As I walk down the hallway greeting everyone good morning, the ostrich act like I am invisible, the impala stand on alert while they decide whether or not I am going to try and eat them, and the gazelle are too content and comfy on their beds to stand up.  Once I reach the end of the barn I am finally greeted with some enthusiasm by Calvin and Hobbes. They immediately walk my way in hopes of getting a treat, and my morning is made.  Their favorite treats are apple & oat horse treats, leaf eater biscuits, and fresh produce like romaine lettuce.

Over the past month we have been working with all of the hoofstock, trying to get them more comfortable with our presence. Each one has a different comfort level.  I am thrilled with the progress happening with the kudu.  Not only do they look to us for treats when we walk by, but they will now take food from me while I share their immediate space in the stalls with them and come over to check me out while I am minding my own business cleaning up after them.

Calvin and Hobbes are the largest species of hoofstock in our department. The larger the antelope the calmer they tend to be.  From the beginning, they were interested in the keepers walking outside of their stalls, rather than nervous.  I began standing outside of their stall and tossing treats to them a couple of times each day. After a few days they trusted me enough to come over to take food from my hand as long as I was on the other side of the wall.  They eventually started walking toward me each time I was near in hopes of getting something yummy to eat. Today they walk right over to me, but if I shift my weight or scratch an itch on my face they walk away, or at least take a step back, to make sure the movement was not a threat to their safety. I am hoping that by spring I will have completely earned their trust.

Earning an animal’s trust is key to being successful in my job. Being able to walk in with an animal or to get them to approach you even with the safety of a barrier, makes you a better keeper.  You can closely monitor their skin, hooves, teeth, paws, administer fly repellent or medication, etc. and make their life significantly less stressful. A keeper’s goal is to make each of our animal’s lives the best they can possibly be!

I hope that you enjoy Calvin and Hobbes as much as we do when they finally get to make their grand appearance in our beautiful, new Africa exhibit this spring!

December 26, 2014   4 Comments

Can Progesterone Predict Pregnancy in Red Pandas?

Scientists at CREW are studying the reproduction of red pandas and have diagnosed pregnancies via trans-abdominal ultrasound. However, performing diagnostic ultrasound imaging requires animal training, a costly ultrasound machine (and a trained ultrasonographer to use it), and is not easily performed on less agreeable individuals. The development of a pregnancy test based on fecal analysis would allow non-invasive pregnancy detection in any female and also could be applied to wild individuals.

Conducting an ultrasound

Conducting an ultrasound

In addition to performing regular ultrasounds on the Zoo’s female red pandas, Bailey and Idgie (who has since transferred to another zoo), CREW scientists are measuring fecal hormone metabolites, such as progesterone (P4), to assess their usefulness as indicators of pregnancy.

Bailey had cubs in 2012 and 2013, and both pregnancies were diagnosed via ultrasound. As expected, fecal hormone metabolite analysis showed that her P4 concentrations increased after breeding and remained elevated until she gave birth. The other female, Idgie, was observed breeding, but no pregnancies were detected. Fecal P4 analysis revealed that her P4 was actually higher than Bailey’s in both years, even though she was not pregnant.

These data support the theory of pseudo-pregnancy in red pandas, which has been suggested for years, but not yet proven. Although P4 is generally considered to be the “pregnancy hormone” and can be used to infer pregnancy status in many species, these results indicate that P4 levels alone cannot be used to diagnose pregnancy in red pandas.

Photo: Mark Dumont

Photo: Mark Dumont

December 17, 2014   No Comments