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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.

Imani_shelf

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   11 Comments

Minnow the Fishing Cat and her Trainer, Linda, Help Protect Fishing Cats in the Wild

Meet Minnow, the Cincinnati Zoo’s first and only fishing cat ambassador. Minnow helps spread awareness about fishing cats at the Zoo, and she has inspired her trainer, Linda Castenada, to support research and conservation of the endangered fishing cat in the wild.

Minnow and her trainer, Linda

Minnow and her trainer, Linda

The fishing cat is a medium-sized cat from the wetlands of Southeast Asia that feeds on rodents, birds, frogs, fish and other aquatic species. Good swimmers, fishing cats have been observed to dive into water after fish as well as to scoop them out with their paws.

Minnow the fishing cat (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Minnow the fishing cat (Photo: Mark Dumont)

During the Cat Ambassador Program’s summer show at the Zoo (called the Cheetah Encounter), Minnow shows off her expert hunting and fishing skills. As far as we know, she is the only current fishing cat ambassador working on stage in an AZA-accredited zoo. Fishing cats are shy and secretive by nature, which makes it challenging to get them comfortable in front of an audience. Linda, who has worked as the Coordinator and Lead Trainer with the Cat Ambassador Program since 2007, was up for the challenge. Since the age of four when she got her first pet cat, Suzi, Linda has always been a cat person.

Linda Castenada and her pet cat, Suzi

Linda Castenada and her pet cat, Suzi

 

With Minnow, it took a lot of patience and paying attention her natural behavior to condition her to display her hunting skills successfully in front of an audience. Following a very set routine is one of the keys to maintaining her comfort. And rewarding her with her favorite fishy treats!

Minnow dives (Photo: ChengLun Na)

Minnow dives (Photo: ChengLun Na)

Minnow catches her fish (Photo: Kathy Moore)

Minnow catches her fish (Photo: Kathy Moore)

After several years of working with Minnow, Linda decided she wanted to do more to support fishing cats in the wild where the conversion of natural wetlands for aquaculture and the persecution of fishing cats for raiding fish and shrimp farms threaten their survival. Linda recently took on a new role as the Education Advisor to the Fishing Cat Species Survival Plan (SSP), a program managed by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums to conserve species through research, breeding, education and conservation. Her mission is to increase awareness and raise funds for fishing cat conservation. To this end, Linda established the Fishing Cat Fund as well as a Fishing Cat SSP page on Facebook.

Fishing Cat Fund logo

She also secured support from the Cincinnati Zoo’s 2014 Internal Conservation Grants Fund for the Fishing Cat Conservancy’s program to conserve the fishing cat and its mangrove habitat around the Krishna Wildlife Sanctuary in India. Through the use of questionnaires, camera-traps, and in-field tracking with local communities, the Fishing Cat Conservancy and the Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society documents fishing cats in the region and involves local people in conservation education and awareness programs about fishing cats and their habitat.

Setting up a camera trap outside Krishna Wildlife Sanctuary (www.fishingcat.org)

Setting up a camera trap outside Krishna Wildlife Sanctuary (www.fishingcat.org)

Fishing cat caught on camera outside Krishna Wildlife Sanctuary (www.fishingcat.org)

Fishing cat caught on camera outside Krishna Wildlife Sanctuary (www.fishingcat.org)

This summer, I encourage you to catch Minnow in action during a Cheetah Encounter show and learn more about wild cats and their conservation around the globe.

Minnow post-swim (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Minnow post-swim (Photo: Kathy Newton)

February 18, 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   1 Comment