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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

Dog Log: Puppies, Puppies and More Puppies!

A very pregnant Imara

A very pregnant Imara with mate Brahma

It’s official folks! Our pair of African painted dogs, Imara and Brahma, are now a pack! Early on Monday, January 5, keepers observed Imara having contractions. Eight minutes later, the first pup was born and the new mama didn’t stop until almost 10pm that night. Normal time intervals between each birth are 30-90 minutes and Imara followed that almost exactly.

Two-year-old Imara came to Cincinnati this past summer from the Oglebay Good Zoo in Wheeling, West Virginia and eight-year-old Brahma, came to us from Zoo New England in Boston. The first time parents have done an exceptional job taking care of all the little ones. It’s a bit of a surprise considering neither of our dogs had a “traditional” upbringing.  Imara was hand reared when her mother didn’t take care of her litter and Brahma had spent the majority of his life with just his 2 brothers.

Brahma entering the box

Brahma enters the den to check on Imara and pups

We are ecstatic that these 2 dogs have taken to parenthood so quickly and easily. Captive African painted dog females aren’t necessarily well known for being the best mothers, but when they do what they are supposed to, they are phenomenal parents. What’s even more special is that although the males will help in varying degrees, for example guarding the nest box and bringing the female food, Brahma went above and beyond what would be considered typical male behavior. He actually groomed almost every single puppy as Imara delivered them and aided her with the removal of the placenta (which normally the females handle all by themselves).

I must admit, when we introduced Imara and Brahma, it was so anticlimactic that I wondered if they would just be buddies. You could tell that they would get along fine, but Brahma was way more into Imara than she was into him. Just because you put a male and female together, it doesn’t guarantee they will breed. In the wild, the alpha female will choose a mate, giving him breeding rights and alpha male status within the pack. In captivity, the females don’t always have the option. However, it is very clear that these 2 dogs were meant to be parents. And fantastic parents at that!

We still have a long road ahead of us. The first couple of months are the most critical. African painted dogs are a sensitive and somewhat fragile species, but if the last few days are any indication, this litter will help increase the number of dogs in the captive population and also increase their genetic diversity. At this time, when captive African painted dog numbers (in North America) are low, every dog counts. These puppies will grow up to be ambassadors to their wild counterparts and will hopefully inspire people to help save this endangered species. For now, we will enjoy the dog pile, or in this case “squirming puppy pile”, as they continue to grow and learn from Imara and Brahma how to be the charismatic African painted dogs they were meant to be!

Imara and pups

Imara and pups

January 12, 2015   7 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.

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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!

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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