For Henry Doorly Zoo's 5 lion cubs, it's all play, eat, sleep, repeat

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Posted: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 12:00 am

A pampered life.

That's the life the five African lion cubs at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium are living.

Mostly, the cubs, who turn 9 months old this month, spend their days playing, sleeping and eating food they don't have to lift a claw to catch. The only fly in the ointment is just that: flies that tickle their ears while they're trying to rest.

If Zuri, Leela, Kya, Josiri and Taj were being raised in the wild, things would be a bit different, and flies would be the least of their worries. Without the care and attention of zookeepers, survival is far from guaranteed, even for top-of-the-food-chain predators like lions.

Zuri, for instance, wouldn't be here. When the five lion cubs were born last December at the Omaha zoo, she was the runt, weighing in at barely 2 pounds. If the zoo's veterinary staff hadn't stepped in, she would have died.

In the wild, she certainly would not have lived past a day or two, and some of the other smaller cubs might have died soon after birth, too, said Brandi Keim, one of the Cat Complex keepers/trainers.

Zuri, Leela and Josiri, who have lagged behind the other two weight-wise, have been especially picky eaters, Keim said.

They all still try to nurse, but the zookeepers aren't sure if they're still getting milk from their mom, Mfisha, or their aunt, Ahadi.

The three smallest cubs don't really like their main diet (basically hamburger) and haven't been eating as heartily as Taj and Kya, Keim said. Getting the smallest three to eat meat has been a case of trial and error for their caretakers, but they all seemed to have found something they like now (eating a blend of the hamburger with other meats such as pork or horse).

If the three lived in the wild and didn't like their food, they would starve when nursing stopped.

Of course, having to find food in the first place might have charged up their appetites and made them much less finicky eaters.

By the time cubs reach 9months in the wild, female lions of the pride would be teaching them to hunt small animals such as mice or taking them on mock hunts, where the adult females bring down an animal and the cubs then move in for the finish, Keim said.

In addition to hunting, the youngsters would learn from their elders how to avoid poisonous snakes and potentially dangerous animals such as elephants and rhinos.

Lions don't have natural predators in the wild. But young cubs just learning to hunt could wander away from the family and be attacked by a leopard or hyena. While the cubs are learning to hunt and are catching small mammals for food, a hyena or leopard may attack them to steal the food.

“Lions kill hyenas; hyenas kill lions,” chanted Alan Holst, senior supervisor of cats and bears, during an afternoon of watching the cubs' antics.

There also is the danger of crocodiles snatching cubs that wade in the water, said Mike Verbrigghe, assistant supervisor of cats and bears.

One of the biggest differences for the cubs would be the presence of their father, Mr. Big, which hasn't been possible at the zoo with this litter of cubs.

Normally, the dad lion would interact with the cubs, allowing them to play with him or at least near him, Verbrigghe said. A male lion will even “baby-sit” cubs while his females are out hunting, he said.

Since the cubs' birth, Mr. Big has lived in another area of the Cat Complex with a lioness named Nala. She and Mr. Big were paired long before Mfisha and Ahadi came to the zoo.

At one point, it was thought that Mr. Big would move in with those two females and the cubs, but zoo officials decided that Nala needed him more. Because lions are social animals, Nala might not survive being left alone.

Cubs' weights in the wild vary because meat in their diet depends on the success of the females' hunt, Verbrigghe said. Also, what the nursing mothers eat affects their milk. Since Mfisha and Aunt Ahadi are well-fed every day, their milk's quality and quantity have been good.

He said the Omaha cubs' weights — ranging from Leela at 82 pounds to Taj at 144 pounds — are probably more than the average lion's weight at their age in the wild.

It's much more difficult for a lion to stay healthy out on the veld. The cubs would be exposed to diseases such as canine distemper, feline immunodeficiency virus or tuberculosis that affect wild populations.

There would be no emergency veterinary care for sickness or injuries, such as Kya's scratched eye, which developed a bacterial infection. She probably would have lost her sight in that eye, Verbrigghe said.

Injuries and illnesses usually lead to death in the wild. Survival of the fittest isn't just a saying.

It should be noted that Omaha's cubs have learned some of the things their wild brethren would learn, Keim said. They stalk and pounce, although mostly for play. Mom Mfisha teaches them to be wary when approaching strange objects — in their case, it's usually new toys. Taj apparently has picked up some hunting skills; he has caught two rats.

The cubs are trying to make more adult sounds, although actual roaring is still pretty far off. Right now the sound is a cross between a growl and a hiss. Josiri, especially, makes a lot of noise.

“Josiri doesn't like us near him at all,” Keim said, meaning he's not fond of people. In the outdoor exhibit area he waits for zoo visitors to walk by, then tries to scare them away by hissing and snarling.

Verbrigghe said the cubs are still too young to leave their mother, and zoo officials don't want to make them travel during the winter. So none will be going anywhere before the spring.

But eventually they will all be moved to other zoos, where they will live on in pampered style.

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