Imani and John are parents! On Thursday, November 13th, African lion Imani gave birth to 3 beautiful, healthy cubs.
I could tell the minute I walked into the lion building that it was the big day! Before I explain myself, here’s a little background on the set-up in our lion holding area: Every night for the last week or so, we’ve kept John separated from Imani in order to provide her a safe and secure denning area for birthing. We had, however, been allowing John to “visit” with Imani in the mornings to maintain their bond. Most mornings, that meant that John and Imani would lounge around in the same holding together with John staring at Imani for long periods of time and Imani napping on the floor. On Thursday morning, however, our pair was having some very different and confused interactions.
Imani was really active, going from one holding to another and spending a lot of time rubbing on the mesh, and shift doors. She seemed to be irritated, uncomfortable and oddly affectionate all at once! She even presented herself to John a couple of times and when he tried to mount her, she swung around and smacked him in the face! Then she followed him around the holding and nipped him on the side a couple of times, as if to say “You’re the reason I feel like this!” Poor John was pretty bewildered by her behavior, but I knew exactly what that behavior meant. As females get closer to delivering their cubs, they will begin to show less tolerance for the male’s presence in their den area. In other words, the labor process was getting started and Imani felt it was time for John to go “sit in the waiting room”. 😉 So we shifted him across the hall into his own holdings and secured Imani into her private and cozy birthing den.
She seemed to relax a little bit now that John was safely away from her, but she still appeared quite uncomfortable. From our video monitors, we observed lots of tail smacking, changing positions constantly, licking her abdomen and genital area, and just general discomfort. This behavior continued throughout the morning and early afternoon. Then, at 3:28pm, we saw Imani jump up make a lap around her enclosure, and a tiny paw was visible sticking out under her tail! Imani looked so freaked out and confused with that first cub; “what in the world is happening?!” was written on her face. She did this frantic spin move and the little cub practically came flying out of her! Thankfully, she began cleaning it up immediately and we could see that it was moving around! Everyone breathed a big sigh of relief and continued to watch the monitors anxiously.
We could see Imani having contractions leading up to the second birth. Her abdomen would tense and her back would arch. It was more than 2 hours before the second cub was born at 5:45pm. This time, Imani seemed much less surprised by the process and she delivered the second cub quite easily. As before, she cleaned this one up and even scooted it over into the same area with its sibling. She then laid down in front of both of them and that was the first time we noticed how exhausted she looked. She tried to stay awake, but her eyelids kept shutting and she finally just laid her head in the straw for a quick nap as the new cubs rooted around and began their first attempts at nursing.
37 minutes after the arrival of the second cub, Imani was sprawled out and looked completely asleep as the 2 little lions fumbled around trying to figure out how to nurse. Then all of a sudden, her body produced a large contraction and just like that, the third cub was half-way out! Poor Imani shot out of her laying position and spun around to lick herself just as the third cub came out. She seemed the most disturbed by that third and final birth. She even sent a half-hearted hiss in the direction of the 3rd cub and didn’t clean it right away. It seemed like she was irritated that this 3rd baby had aroused her from such a deep sleep with no warning at all! She must have forgiven it though, because she finally went over to clean it up and welcome it to the world.
The keeper and curator staff continued to watch over Momma and her babies for the next 6 hours to make sure that all the cubs had been delivered and the labor was finished. It was amazing to see how mobile the cubs were right from the beginning. They instinctively began crawling and searching for Imani’s teats to start nursing. Similarly, it was so impressive to watch Imani’s maternal instincts kick into gear. She was so gentle maneuvering around the cubs, cautious and aware of each of them in the nesting area. She laid on her side and even held her leg up so that the babies could easily access her milk. Slowly, but surely, one after another, all three cubs had latched onto a nipple and Imani lay cooperatively and unmoving so that they could eat.
Imani has been such an attentive and gentle mother. She’s grooming each of them regularly and stimulating them to go to the bathroom (as she should). She isn’t entirely comfortable with picking up the cubs yet. Early on she tried with one cub and it started wiggling around frantically so she dropped it and just looked confused. On one occasion, the group of 3 wound up spread out all over the holding area and it was almost comical reading Imani’s facial expressions. She was clearly annoyed that her wriggly babies had wondered so far from each other, making it difficult for her to keep track of them all. She went over to the cub farthest away from the other two and gently picked it up in her mouth around its head and shoulders. She brought it out onto the heated concrete area near the other two cubs and used her paws to scoot them all together into a lump of baby lions. Then she laid down right in front of them as if to say “The nipples are right here! Don’t go wandering off again!”
She’s doing so well, and I know you all would be proud of her! It’s been amazing to watch this new and gentle side of Imani emerge as she takes care of her cubs. So far, all three cubs have been nursing regularly and spending most of their time sleeping. They go on little adventures now and then (mostly crawling over Momma and each other). So far, all indications point towards happy and healthy babies, but we’re not out of the woods yet. The first few weeks of their lives are absolutely crucial and keepers are taking care to give Imani plenty of privacy and alone time with the babies. It will be a while before we are able to go in and perform the cubs’ first wellness exams and determine genders.
We will do our best to keep everyone informed about John and Imani’s new family in the weeks to come!! In order to give Imani and the cubs the privacy and bonding time they need, keepers will be staying pretty hands-off for a little while. For this reason, our lion cub coverage will be pretty limited to “screen shots” from the video monitors, but as soon as we feel Imani is comfortable enough with our presence, we’ll try to get some good pics and video of our new additions! As always, thank you so much for all of your love, support and understanding during this special time! So excited to have 3 new lions at the Cincinnati Zoo!