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From the ‘Burgh to the Gulf: Lions relocated in zoo breeding program

In early June, three 2-year-old lion cub siblings were permanently relocated from the Pittsburgh Zoo to the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo.

Adjusting to a new home is a feat for anyone, including the three young predators, Chadwick, Regina and Daniel.

Staff members at the zoo in Gulf Shores, Ala., worked hard to prepare for the cubs’ arrival. They made sure to have a pool in the cats’ enclosure to help battle the Southern heat.

“They were much fluffier when they first got here,” Ashlyn Kenwright, one of the zookeepers who interact with the cubs daily, said in mid-July. “They quickly shed a ton to try to cool off naturally.”

The keepers use other methods to keep the lions cool, such as freezing blocks of blood and giving them to the cats to enjoy like a carnivorous Popsicle.

“It’s something that they would lie down to eat,” said Joel Hamilton, Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo director. “They hold the block with their front paws and the ice cools down their arms as their internal temperature lowers with the intake of the cool moisture.”

Introductions between the cubs and their keepers were a slow process. They started by helping the cubs get used to the keepers’ scents. This entailed the keepers entering the feeding building while the cubs were in another room.

In the beginning, doors leading from the feeding room to inside the enclosure were left open so the cats could leave if they felt uncomfortable. That slowly transitioned to the keepers being able to feed the cats inside and clean their enclosure while the cubs ate.

“This is the first time that we’ve taken care of cubs that weren’t born in our zoo,” said Caitland Dallas, another zookeeper who helps care for the lions. “This was a new experience for us and the cats. The secret to most cats is not through their hearts, but their stomachs. Once they realized that we usually show up with food, they decided to let us stick around.”

The three cubs are closely bonded with each other, especially Chadwick, who calls for his siblings when he can’t see them. This usually only happens during feeding time. Sometimes the cat lets his nerves get the best of him and he can only eat a few pounds of meat before he begins to miss his brother and sister.

Keepers have been giving him a smaller diet with the hopes that his hunger will make him fully enter the feeding building, and he can learn that there is a full meal waiting for him there.

“The Pittsburgh Zoo described Chad as a little insecure,” said Kenwright. “We’re hoping that he gets more confident in his own skin than him. Their whole world just got changed, so he just needs a bit more time to get comfortable.”

Chadwick was certainly at his brightest on a recent morning once his siblings came out from the feeding building. He bumped heads with Daniel encouraging his brother to play, and followed Regina as she investigated the milk bottle that Dallas gives them as a treat.

“Dairy in large amounts can upset a cat’s stomach,” she said. “But a small amount like this is a good treat that they enjoy and it helps them cool off.”

After the cubs had their fill of the spray-bottle milk, they cuddled in a pile for a nap.

“The heat never stops them from sleeping on top of each other,” said Kenwright. “They could sleep a few feet apart and be much cooler, but they just want to be as close as possible.”

The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo looks to become a bigger part in breeding programs for lions in the Zoological Association of America. Director Hamilton took in the cubs hoping to find a cage mate for the zoo’s other female lion, Nandi.

African lions were officially put on the vulnerable species list in 2020. In response, ZAA has communicated with zoos around the country to help increase healthy breeding.

For lions to be bred, their family trees need to be mapped to avoid any inbreeding. Each zoo that would like to participate in the program must have their lions’ genetics mapped.

“The whole point is to have a science-based breeding program, where animals are sent or received is all based on genetics,” Hamilton said. “Looking at who should be paired with who to keep genetic vigor going for several generations is all based on their family trees.”

Once the cubs get a bit more settled, the zoo staff will begin the introduction process between Nandi and the male cubs. If she takes a liking to one, their breeding will help bolster the lion population.

Hamilton hopes there will be a successful mating and an opportunity to send the possible cubs to a zoo with eligible mates. With the widespread work of zoos across America, the African lion population will have a chance to increase so that the species is no longer considered vulnerable.

Hayley Daugherty is a contributing writer.

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