For the last several weeks, we have been working to introduce dad lion, Makini, to his cubs. In their natural environment, female lions separate from the core pride to give birth in seclusion, usually rocky outcroppings or overgrowth. Newborn lion cubs are highly dependent and are not able to keep up with the pride for several weeks. The pride male and other adults continue to hunt and patrol the family territory in the meantime. They use vocalizations, including roaring, to connect across distances. When the cubs are old enough to keep up, the mother (or “dam”) will head out with her cubs to rejoin the family group. Female lions in a pride often give birth around the same time, so there can be multiple litters raised by several females at once. These females work together to protect and feed the youngsters.
At Philadelphia Zoo, both Tajiri and Makini are first-time parents. Tajiri was given a secluded denning area to give birth and begin to raise their cubs. In those first few weeks, Tajiri was not interested in sharing parenting duties with Makini, and this choice was an appropriate one. After the cubs were big enough to navigate the outdoor yard and had settled into a routine, we worked with Tajiri to see if she might be ready to see Makini.
From moment the cubs were born, Makini was well aware there were cubs in the space—Tajiri and Makini communicated verbally, and the cubs were also very vocal. When the opportunity was first offered, Tajiri indicated that she was not ready to include Makini yet. Allowing Tajiri to set the tone, we gave her additional time to be alone with the cubs, and by the end of September, she showed interest in having Makini visit with her and their offspring.
This sort of introduction is a step-by-step process, and the keepers monitor it very carefully. It starts with Makini in his bedroom, separated from Tajiri and the cubs by a mesh panel, so all can safely choose to approach the meshing or keep their distance. Initially, this mesh access is given only during the day, which allows everyone to get a good night’s rest. When that went well, keepers increased the time the family had access to the mesh panel.
We were then able to give them this protected contact access for 24 hours a day, every day of the week. Based on the behavior observed at the mesh, we then formulated a decision about when to pull the door and allow Makini into the same physical space with Tajiri and the cubs.
Check out next week’s post for the second half of our lion family’s story.
By Kay Buffamonte, KeyBank Big Cat Falls Lead Keeper