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They've come a long way from being five cute little lion cubs.
As Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium celebrates the first birthday of Taj, Kya, Josiri, Leela and Zuri, visitors are likely to marvel at their size, laugh at their occasional lack of coordination and see what beautiful animals they are becoming.
The zoo held a small party for them Thursday. A much bigger celebration, open to the public, will start at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, the cubs' actual first birthday.
Once the smallest cub, Zuri, was healthy, there was never any doubt that all five would make it to a year old, said Dan Houser, curator of large mammals.
The zookeepers at the Cat Complex are pleased with the way the cubs have developed, he said. “They are right where we expect them to be.”
Houser said the cubs are social, playful and interactive.
They were interactive Thursday, as they squabbled over who would get the birthday treats. After the meat treats were gone, they chewed on the present boxes and paper streamers decorating their exhibit.
They're all getting big, but Taj is still the largest at about 180 pounds. Kya follows at 160.
Zuri is still the smallest, 131 pounds, but isn't far behind Leela and Josiri, who are about 138 pounds.
It's getting easier to tell Taj and Josiri from the others because they sport the beginnings of their manes.
All of them are a bit cautious about approaching strange objects — like birthday packages.
And they still sleep 20 hours a day.
The important fact is that they are all healthy. In the spring or summer, they will move on to other zoos.
Where they eventually end up will depend on the Species Survival Plan, a conservation breeding program that carefully places African lions to breed offspring of known lineage. This is especially true for selecting where the two males will go.
The survival planning decides what is best for the lion genetic pool and what is best for the individual lions, Houser said.
What is certain is that none of them will be in Omaha to celebrate a second birthday.
“It's been amazing to watch them grow,” said senior zookeeper Ryan Whisney. “It's beyond words.”
Lion Cubs Children's Book
The World-Herald has captured the story of the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium lion cubs in “The Littlest Lion,” a children's book written by Carol Bicak.
The cubs' story is told through the eyes of Zuri, the runt of the litter.
The zoo's staff helped her not only to survive but to thrive as she rejoined her family.
“The Littlest Lion” is filled with beautiful photos by The World-Herald's Chris Machian and Kent Sievers, and facts about lions are included at the back of the book.
The book, which costs $14.95, can be ordered online at OWHstore.com or by phone at 402-444-1014.