Lions can breed and produce cubs at nearly any time during the year. Female lions cycle roughly every 30 to 35 days, so after witnessing successful breeding behavior in March, we waited expectantly to see if Tajiri would cycle again in April. When she missed the April cycle, we were cautiously optimistic about the possibility of a pregnancy.
Big cat pregnancies are short, roughly 100 to 115 days in length. With such a short window, we began the plan for a birth expected in late June. Like nearly all the big cats, lions in the wild make use of hideaway dens to give birth and raise very young cubs. Pregnant females usually separate from the main pride and find rocky outcroppings or thick areas of overgrowth to give birth. The main pride usually moves off some distance to continue hunting and patrolling the area, reuniting only when mom brings cubs with her at about eight weeks or so.
At the Zoo, we provide for a quiet space that is closed off from view so that the female feels comfortable and in control of the environment. For Tajiri, we provided three bedrooms for her personal use, including two larger rooms—one with a cooling unit, and one without—so that she could choose her preferred temperature. These two larger bedrooms had visual access to keeper staff when keepers were in the space. As nearly all big cats prefer more privacy for birth and very young cubs, she was also given access to a smaller bedroom attached to the larger two, where the only viewing was through closed circuit cameras.
Tajiri and Makini spent the entire pregnancy as a pair. On Mother’s Day weekend, keeper staff noticed that not only was Tajiri’s belly size bigger, but her mammary glands appeared to be enlarged as well. During the last few days before the expected due date, Makini and Tajiri went out on exhibit during the day and were observed closely, with Tajiri being separated into her private bedrooms overnight. Before the due date, we practiced separation time with Tajiri and Makini, so they would not be uncomfortable when apart for a long period of time.
Then, during the nights as June 25 turned into June 26, she gave birth! Not surprisingly, Tajiri chose to use the smaller most private bedroom. In the morning when we checked on the lions, Makini was alert in his bedrooms, likely hearing the cubs talking. Tajiri was visible only on remote camera, very calmly nursing FOUR babies!
Tajiri has shown very strong maternal behavior since the birth. She maintains the cubbing den, and has guarded the cubs carefully from view. As a first-time mom, she is incredibly patient and attentive, spending literally 24 hours a day nursing, cleaning and nurturing her babies. Continue to check in for updates on their development!
By Kay Buffamonte, First Niagara Big Cat Falls Lead Keeper