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Welcome, Little Lions

Four cubs are born healthy at the National Zoo, and more could follow next month

The stork has landed at the National Zoo. Last night, Shera, one of the zoo’s two female African lions, gave birth to four cubs. You can watch a short clip of the cubs rolling around the den (and making a lot of noise) on the zoo’s YouTube page.

The cubs arrived sometime between 10:30 PM and 2:30 AM, and they appear to be doing well. You won’t see them in the yard anytime soon, though. Lions in the wild wait up to six weeks to introduce cubs to the rest of the pride, and the zoo’s keepers plan to gradually introduce them first to their aunt, Naba, and then to their father, Luke. The cubs should be outside in late fall.

The little guys may soon have some cousins/half siblings. Naba, Shera’s older sister, is expecting and is due in mid- to late September; Luke is the father of her cub(s) too. This is Naba’s second pregnancy. She gave birth to a single cub in May, but it died a few days later after inhaling a tiny piece of hay.

The arrival of Shera’s cubs is big news for the zoo, which hasn’t had baby lions in more than 20 years. Compared to many zoo species, lions aren’t particularly difficult to breed; both Shera and Naba mated naturally with Luke and therefore didn’t need artificial insemination. But it’s been a long time since the zoo had the right combination of animals to breed.

Zoo staffers are keeping a close eye on Shera and her cubs via cameras mounted in her cubbing den, which is designed to give her lots of privacy. There’s still a chance she could reject the cubs, in which case keepers would attempt to separate her from them and hand-rear the babies. But that would be a last resort.

“Our hope is that her maternal instincts will kick in quickly, but we are keeping in mind that this whole experience is new to her,” says Kristen Clark, a lion and tiger keeper. For Clark and Rebecca Stites, the other lion and tiger keeper, the birth of Shera’s cubs is the culmination of a plan that began with the careful introduction of Luke to Naba and Shera almost two years ago.

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