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Zoo News: Baby Lions on the Way

The National Zoo gets ready to keep its lion cubs healthy.

Photograph by Volker Hartmann /AFP /Getty Images
The pitter patter of little paws may soon be coming again to the National Zoo. Staffers there believe that both female lions, sisters Shera and Nababiep, are expecting. Four-year-old Luke, the zoo’s only male lion, is the father.

Confirming a lion pregnancy is uncertain business because lions can have pseudo-pregnancies. “There’s always room for error,” says Craig Saffoe, acting senior curator of great cats. “That’s why you’ll hear us get gun shy and say ‘She’s probably pregnant.’ ”

But the false alarms usually last only about 48 days, and the zoo’s endocrinologists have seen high levels of pregnancy hormones in Shera for 98 days and in Naba for 77 days. Gestation for lions lasts about 110 days, which means Shera would be due at the end of the month and Nababiep in mid-September.

If the cubs survive, they’ll be the first at the zoo in more than 20 years. But lions have a high rate of infant mortality, which is why in the past zoos have waited days or weeks before announcing the birth of cubs.

Dennis Kelly, the National Zoo’s new director, is aiming for greater transparency and suggested live-streaming the birth on the Web. That idea was ultimately rejected, though, because so many things could go wrong, including the very real possibility that the mother could eat her cubs if they’re born with defects or if she’s startled—not exactly family-friendly viewing.

Nababiep gave birth to a single cub on May 18, and things seemed to be going well until the cub died unexpectedly two days later. Pathologists found that he had inhaled a hay awn—a small pointed tip on a piece of the hay that keepers had used for bedding—which led to pneumonia. Saffoe calls it a devastating, “one in a million” tragedy.

Saffoe says the lionkeepers will continue to use hay for bedding but have found a different kind of hay with far fewer awns. They’ll also sift through it by hand to remove any awns they find. “We want to make sure we’re giving mom the best potential spot to give birth,” he says. “We’ve gotten to a point where we can reduce and all but eliminate the possibility of another awn incident.”

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