Lion Keeper’s Blog: “Meanwhile, Across the Hall…”

IMG_1245We’ve gotten a lot of questions about John’s role now that the cubs are here. Here’s some important background information and a quick update to fill you in on the proud new papa!

Ever since he came to live at the Cincinnati Zoo, John’s keepers immediately recognized his penchant for routine. Consistency seemed to be the key to success in many aspects of John’s life. In training and developing his comfort level on exhibit, we found that if we kept things predictable and the same, day after day, John seemed to thrive.

But it goes without saying that the biggest impact on John’s life in Cincinnati came in the form of a sassy young lioness from the St. Louis Zoo. Ever since the two were introduced back on April 30th of this year, John has been enamored with Imani. Always the more codependent of the two, John never let Imani out of his sight, but always respected her need for a little space. He could usually be found laying in her immediate vicinity and staring in her general direction. If keepers ever separated the two (either for training sessions or to give Imani a little “alone time”), John would call out to her and search the exhibit for his missing companion.

Never fond of being on his own, John’s affinity for Imani presented a potential problem once we suspected that Imani might be pregnant. In the wild, when female lionesses are about to give birth, they will usually remove themselves from the pride in order to have their cubs in a more private and secluded area. Often the female and her cubs will not rejoin the pride until the cubs are between 6 and 8 weeks old. We knew that as the time came near, Imani would need to be separated from John in order for her to feel she had the privacy and seclusion she would need during that time. For his keepers, the thought of disrupting John’s routine and keeping him separated from Imani for any length of time was disheartening.

Would John’s instincts kick in? How would he handle the separation and break in routine? Keepers had no way of knowing how John would react to all the changes on the horizon, so we began planning and prepping several months in advance to help John to be as happy and content as possible once the cubs arrived.

IMG_1292Back in August, when we first suspected that Imani might be pregnant, we began a “desensitization” process with John. We had to help John to become confident and content in Imani’s absence so that when the cubs arrived, the separation wouldn’t be so traumatic for him. We utilized a number of training techniques to help us accomplish our goal. We started out small, separating John and Imani for short amounts of time (lasting 15 minutes at first and working our way up to a few hours). At first the lions were only separated by a mesh door (“Oh good, she’s right there! I can still see her!”). Then we worked our way up to a solid door between the two (“Hmm… I can still smell her and hear her. Imani must not be far away.”) Next we worked on keeping one lion inside and shifting one out on exhibit. The final step was housing John in his “Daddy Quarters” across the hall from Imani’s “Birthing/Denning Area” overnight.

Each time that we separated John from Imani, we always paired the separation with something positive that John loved. We would make sure he had his favorite foods (guinea pigs and rabbits!), his favorite toys (his “Weeble” toy and his mini-keg), or his favorite smells (green tea and elephant toe-nail clippings!) to keep his mind and body occupied. By pairing the separations with all of these really positive things, we were able to help John cope with the change in routine and even develop his independence! Before long, John began to understand that being alone wasn’t such a bad thing, and he would always see Imani again soon.

As any father can attest to, something happens when you become a dad. The life you once knew ceases to exist, and whether you like it or not, your progeny become the focus of the world. The same has been true for John ever since the evening of November 13th.

That night, John sat across the hall staring intently in the direction of Imani’s birthing den. The majority of the front of Imani’s den had been covered (so that she could feel secure), but a small window was left nearest John’s enclosure so that she could peek out. And if John laid in just the right spot in his enclosure and tilted his head at just the right angle, he could catch glimpses of Imani inside. Thanks to additional surveillance cameras mounted inside the lion building, keepers were able to observe John as well as Imani from a remote location. On that night, John sat quietly across the hall with his paws folded in front of him and watched and listened to the birth of his cubs.

John has been absolutely stellar ever since. He sits and stares in the direction of Imani and the cubs for most of his waking hours, and he sleeps in the enclosure nearest his new family. He definitely seems aware that something important and life-changing has happened, but it’s difficult to say whether or not he understands he’s a dad. He seems to instinctively understand that his role at this time is to just stay across the hall and be calm and quiet for a while. On the warmer days, we’ve been able to shift John on exhibit for a few hours so that he can get some sunshine and exercise, but he always comes running back inside to make sure Imani and the cubs are right where he left them.

IMG_1280Keepers are providing John with all of his favorite things as he waits patiently across the hall to meet his family. We even sit down next to the mesh of his cage and just spend time near him and talking to him. At times he’s seemed a little bit jealous of all the attention the keepers are giving Imani and the cubs, but he’s doing his best to be supportive and low-maintenance.

Introducing the cubs to John will be a process similar to Imani and John’s first introductions. We will start out slowly. John will likely be moved into one of the neighboring enclosures on the same side of the hall as Imani and the cubs. Next we’ll set up the mesh “howdy” doors so that John can see the cubs and the cubs can see John with a safety barrier between them. Once John, Imani and the cubs seem comfortable with each other, we’ll open the howdy doors and keepers will supervise their first interactions. If all goes well, we’ll gradually increase the amount of time that John gets to spend with the cubs until eventually the whole pride will be living together full-time!

Before the introduction process starts, we will need to wait until the cubs are much bigger and stronger.  As always, a lot of the decision-making will be based on Imani’s comfort level, but if all goes according to plan, you will likely be able to see the whole family of 5 out on exhibit together this spring!