Omaha zoo's lion cubs at 6 months: All 5 — even the runt — are in excellent health -
Published Wednesday, July 3, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:09 pm
Omaha zoo's lion cubs at 6 months: All 5 — even the runt — are in excellent health

• Photo slideshow: The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium's lion cubs.

* * *

Josiri, Kya, Leela, Taj and Zuri turned 6 months old Saturday.

Although a lot has happened to the five African lion cubs born to Mfisha and Mr. Big on Dec. 29 at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, they appear to not have a care in the world these days.

They have indoor and outdoor display areas with their mom and their aunt, Ahadi. There are rocks and tree limbs to climb and toys to play with. They sleep about 20 hours a day, taking cat naps whenever they feel like it.

And, my, how they have grown.

Their trainer-keepers — Jenna Kocourek, Hilary Merkwan, Brandi Keim, Ryan Whisney and Corissa Bartel — now work with them from outside the exhibit because the cubs have gotten so strong and fast.

The cubs' birth weights ranged from 3.5 pounds to 2.2 pounds. Now Taj is the biggest at 78 pounds, followed by Kya at 60, Josiri at 55, Leela at 50 and Zuri at 43.

Yes, Zuri is still the runt of the bunch, but that doesn't mean she can't stand up for herself. The keepers say she is adventurous, fearless and often the first to try something new. She can be mischievous, but she is also the most socialized with people.

That could be because she was raised by humans at the zoo's veterinary clinic during the first week or so of her life, when zoo officials feared that she would die.

Vets fed her and got her strong enough to be reintroduced to her brothers and sisters. Experts from other zoos had warned that putting her back with her family would be impossible. But Dennis Pate, director and CEO of Omaha's zoo, and his staff were determined to try.

“It could have gone either way,” said Alan Holst, Cat Complex supervisor, who credits Aunt Ahadi with keeping the lion family together.

When Zuri was brought back to her family, she brought human odors with her, despite all the steps taken to prevent it. Handlers had even rubbed themselves with soiled straw from the lion exhibit. It didn't help that Zuri still had to be bottle-fed a few times a day. Mfisha suddenly decided that she didn't want anything to do with her cubs, said trainer Whisney.

Ahadi, who had lost her cubs, took over nursing responsibilities and didn't seem to have a problem with Zuri. Eventually, Mfisha resumed her motherly duties to all the cubs, and they've been one big happy family ever since.

It's getting easier for the trainers and keepers to tell the cubs apart, especially by size. But they are also developing distinctive markings that set them apart from one another, and the males sport the start of sideburns.

Leela has a scar on her nose that she has had since birth. Whisney said Zuri and Kya could be twins, until you see them standing side by side. Then their size difference tells you who's who.

The cubs have training sessions most afternoons. That isn't too onerous because the treats used for the training are chunks of steak. They also have been introduced to such lion delicacies as guinea pigs and rats (dead), horse and ox tails, and cow bones. Mom and Aunt Ahadi may fight for those treats, but they always end up giving them to the cubs.

The five siblings all are in excellent health, the keepers said. Aside from Zuri's rocky start in life, the only serious problem has been a scratch on one of Kya's eyes that required daily eye drops for a while. The keepers speculated that she could have received the injury while playing.

The cubs continue to draw crowds to the Cat Complex, especially at training times. On a recent afternoon, it was interesting to hear how many of the visitors knew their names and talked about them as if they were closely acquainted. Children point to the cubs' pictures, which hang on the wall, and rattle off facts they know by heart.

Only out-of-town guests seem unfamiliar with their story, but soon they, too, are captivated by those five cute faces.

Contact the writer: Carol Bicak    |   402-444-1067

Carol writes about community news, local profiles, the arts and books. She also covers the zoo.

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