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Birth of a Lion
Washingtonians delighted at the birth of lion cubs at the National Zoo this summer. For the lions’ keepers, it was the end of a nerve-racking journey. They weren’t certain the cubs would ever be born—or that they’d survive. By Denise Kersten Wills
Photograph by Mehgan Murphy/National Zoo .
Comments () | Published November 5, 2010
Rebecca Stites lay on her sofa and stared at her laptop. An animal keeper at the National Zoo, Stites was plugged into a live video feed of a cubbing den—a small room with a concrete floor, cinderblock walls, and an adjoining caged area—where Shera, one of the zoo’s two female lions, was giving birth.

Though even zoos in smaller cities such as Norfolk and Tulsa had had lion cubs in recent years, the National Zoo hadn’t had any in more than two decades. The zoo currently doesn’t have many crowd-pleasing big animals—no giraffes, rhinos, or hippos. Baby animals are always a big draw, and lion cubs could help make up for the departure of the beloved panda Tai Shan.

Stites was a key member of the team that had been working for two years to build a lion pride and produce cubs. She felt powerless watching the birth from home, but there was nothing more she or any other zoo staffer could do. None of them would be present for the birth.

Stites had logged onto the video feed around 7 pm on August 30 of this year and noticed that Shera looked as if she couldn’t find a comfortable position—a sign she would probably go into labor soon. Now, five hours later, there were two cubs—two fuzzy, clumsy little fur balls—in the den with her, and it didn’t appear that she was finished.

Stites watched as Shera stood up, circled, and dropped a third cub. Stites had never seen the actual moment of a cub’s birth. As number three lay motionless on the bed of hay and pine shavings, Stites exchanged nervous text messages with her boss, Craig Saffoe, who was also watching from home. This didn’t look good, they wrote each other. Why wasn’t the cub moving?

Early in Shera’s pregnancy, the zoo’s new director, Dennis Kelly, had proposed streaming real-time video of the birth to the public. Moments like this were a reminder of why the zoo staff had persuaded him not to. Though cubs in captivity have higher survival rates than in the wild, about a third die before their first birthday. Any number of things could go wrong. Shera might reject her cubs and refuse to nurse. She could get startled and swat at them with her saucer-size paws. If they’re stillborn or if Shera gets stressed, she might even eat them. How would people watching at home—and there was little doubt they would want to watch—react to that?

Stites already knew the disappointment—a feeling she describes as getting the air knocked out of her—of losing a newborn cub. She held her breath, willing the animal to live. Come on, she thought. Move.

With all the time the keepers spend with the lions, they can’t help getting attached. Even Janine Brown, head of the zoo’s endocrinology lab and an elephant expert, feels a bond with animals whose hormones she studies. “They are part of my family,” she says, “but I’ve never seen three-quarters of them.”

Stites and Kristen Clark, another keeper, have been taking care of the zoo’s three lions—Shera, her sister Naba, and Luke, the cubs’ father—for several years. The lions came to the National Zoo in 2006 from South Africa, where they were born in a private reserve. At the time, the National Zoo had just one lion, a 16-year-old female named Lusaka who’d been spayed.

Part of the keepers’ job was to train the lions so keepers could check them for health problems without using anesthesia. It was a slow process, but the lions caught on: Do something right, get a treat. The rewards included raw meatballs, whole rabbits, and the lions’ favorite, knuckle, femur, or shank bones from cows.

Luke, Shera, and Naba learned to open their mouths so the keepers—standing on the other side of the cage door—could inspect their teeth, to step on a scale, to give the keepers a view of their bellies, to sit still while the keepers pricked them with a needle. Getting such powerful animals to do what you want, to trust you enough to let you inflict discomfort—it’s a good feeling. The keepers think about the lions all the time, talk about them, even dream about them.

And sometimes it seems as if the lions return their affection. Luke, Shera, and Naba rub their heads against the mesh cage doors when Clark and Stites speak to them, and the animals often spot them in the public viewing area and follow them with their gaze as they walk through the crowd.

But Clark and Stites have to assume their love is unrequited. To think otherwise about a big cat could be deadly. In 2007, a keeper at the San Antonio Zoo forgot to lock a series of gates behind him and was attacked by a Sumatran tiger, who bit him several times and dragged him by the head, almost killing him. The same year, a keeper at the Denver Zoo entered a jaguar’s cage and was mauled to death.

Saffoe makes a point of checking on his staffers each morning. If they’re not totally focused, he puts them on office work. He likes to remind them of his rules: Don’t get complacent. Always know where the cats are. Always know where your colleagues are.

Because of the danger, keepers never go into the same space as an adult lion, which is why they wouldn’t be able to rescue a newborn cub if something were to go wrong.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 11/05/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles