Keeper’s Blog: The Pride of Cincinnati!

Imani's bump
Imani’s bump

If you’ve seen our 3 year-old female lioness Imani on exhibit lately, you may have noticed that she’s getting a little round around the middle. But Imani isn’t just packing on the pounds for winter, there is a chance that she might be pregnant!

John and Imani came to the Cincinnati Zoo back in 2012 with a breeding recommendation from the African lion SSP (species survival plan). The SSP helps zoos to work cooperatively to manage captive animal populations so that we can avoid in-breeding and maintain healthy genetics within our captive populations. Fortunately for Cincinnati, John and Imani were matched up and brought to the Queen City to start a pride together.

You can read more about John and Imani’s first meeting here:

Almost immediately after being introduced to each other, keepers began to see breeding behaviors! Since John and Imani are both young, inexperienced lions, the initial breedings didn’t seem to amount to much. More often than not, Imani would only sit still for John for about 20 seconds, then she would swing around and smack him in the face while snarling. Poor John was receiving some very mixed and confusing signals, and breeding Imani seemed like a very daunting and scary proposition. He stuck with it though, and soon the breeding behaviors began to look more (re)productive! 😉

John and Imani
John and Imani

A little bit of background info on lion breeding. Typically, female lions cycle every 17 days, and they are induced ovulators (meaning they only ovulate, or release eggs, when mating has occurred). Induced ovulation helps ensure that breeding is successful because eggs are not being released and wasted unless breeding (and the possibility of fertilization) has occurred.

Keepers were seeing pretty regular estrus cycles from Imani every 17 days or so for the first few months that the lions were together. At each cycle, we observed breeding from the lions. Then, at the beginning of August, we anticipated an estrus cycle that never came. Since that time, keepers have been collecting and submitting fecal samples from Imani to our research department over at CREW (the zoo’s center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife). CREW analyzed the progesterone levels in Imani’s feces to help us determine that ovulation HAD occurred during the last observed breeding cycles. Even more exciting, Imani’s elevated progesterone levels were a good indication that she might be pregnant!

Now before we start planning a baby shower or registering for baby gifts, we should note another important and fascinating aspect of lion reproduction: pseudopregnancy. Pseudopregnancy (or “false” pregnancy) can cause the female’s body to exhibit signs and symptoms of pregnancy even if she’s not actually pregnant. For this reason, we are not saying “Imani’s pregnant!”. Instead, we are saying “Imani might be pregnant!” We will only know if there has been a true pregnancy if and when Imani delivers her cub(s) sometime this November.

In preparation for possible cubs, keepers have been working around the clock to ensure that Imani has a safe, secure and comfortable place to give birth. We are setting up a special “denning area” complete with full privacy, a cozy nest area, and even video surveillance cameras so that keepers can monitor Imani from a distance.  Since Imani will be a first time mom, much of the decision-making that happens from this point on will be based on Imani’s comfort level. Maintaining a sense of security and comfort for her during this pivotal and exciting time is our top priority! We ask for your patience and understanding as one (or both) lions may be spending less time on exhibit during the next month or so leading up to the possible arrival of cubs. As always, thank you for the amazing love and support you’ve shown our lions so far and stay tuned to learn if and when we add new lion cubs to our Cincinnati pride!

Wendy Rice
Africa Keeper
Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden