Hospitalized lion cub rejoins mother, brothers and sisters at Omaha zoo

Nicole Linafelter holds a sleepy baby lion cub born in the last week at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Jan. 4, 2013. Linafelter, a veterinary technician, is one of the people caring for this cub, who was the runt of the litter and was removed from her mother's care.


Photos: More shots of the lion cubs.

Update, Jan. 9, 4:30 p.m.: A female lion cub has rejoined her mother and brothers and sisters in the Cat Complex at the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, after being briefly hospitalized last week for specialized care. The cub received around-the-clock care because she was smaller than the others and wasn't competing for food, according to zoo officials.

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Five lion cubs — three females and two males — are celebrating their one-week birthday today at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.

Four of them are on view with their mom, Mfisha, and their aunt, Ahadi, in the Cat Complex. But for one of the females, this week has been a struggle to survive.

The cub was born smaller than her brothers and sisters — 2.2 pounds to their 2.8 to 3.5 birth weights. When she was 48 hours old, the cub was removed to the zoo hospital because she was undernourished and not able to compete with the others for food. She lives in an incubator for human babies and has been on a continuous feeding schedule.

On Friday, the little cub weighed in at 2.55 pounds and seemed vigorous and eager for her bottle from vet tech Nicole Linafelter. Dr. Doug Armstrong, the zoo's director of animal health, said she appears to be doing well, taking 60 milliliters of dog milk replacement with nutrients every four hours. “We want to bulk her up a little bit, get her up to speed with the others.”

The veterinary staff also is watching closely for the development of pneumonia or for any congenital birth defects.

Dennis Pate, zoo director and CEO, said if the cub continues to improve, the zoo will try to reintegrate her with the family in a week or so. The cub's incubator has soiled straw from her siblings' enclosure to help keep her socialized with the family.

“We want to get her to the point where she doesn't need nightly feedings,” Pate said. “All is going as well as we could hope.”

He said the training the lions have gone through will enable keepers to go into the enclosure to continue bottle-feeding the female cub if Mfisha still isn't feeding her. “Mom trusts the keepers.”

Pate is excited about the cubs' birth for a couple of reasons. First, it has been 18 years since lion cubs were born at the Omaha zoo, and planning for this has been complicated and time consuming. Second, five is a big litter and contributes to the survival of the vulnerable subspecies, Panthera leo krugeri or South African lion. There are 219 krugeri of known lineage in North American zoos, including 11 other births in the past 12 months.

The cubs are able to be housed with their aunt and eventually with their father, Mr. Big, because lions are social animals, Pate said. In the wild, mother lions nurse each others' cubs and fathers are part of the pride.

Mr. Big is with another female lion, Nala, an older cat who lost her alpha female status to 6-year-old Mfisha and doesn't like her, Ahadi or the cubs. Nala always will have to be housed away from them, and Mr. Big will be rotated between her living space and the other lions' space.

Mfisha took to motherhood right away, Pate said. “She's a really good mom.”

Zoo visitors shouldn't be surprised to see the lion cubs have pale spotted markings similar to other kinds of cats.

“People think of lions being only the tawny color,” said Dan Cassidy, general curator at the Omaha zoo. “But they have variations,” which show up more when they are young.

The new lions will remain at the zoo for several years, Pate said. There also is a chance that Ahadi is pregnant, too, so the family could continue to grow.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1067, carol.bicak@owh.com

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