From ‘Burgh to the Gulf: Lions moved as part of zoo’s breeding program

In early June, three 2-year-old lion cub siblings were permanently moved from the Pittsburgh Zoo to the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo.

Adjusting to a new home is a feat for everyone, including the three young predators, Chadwick, Regina and Daniel.

Staff members at the Gulf Shores Zoo in Alabama have been hard at work preparing for the arrival of the cubs. They made sure to have a pool in the cat enclosure to beat the southern heat.

“They were a lot softer when they got here,” Ashlyn Kenwright, one of the zookeepers who interacts with the cubs daily, said in mid-July. “They quickly lost a ton trying to cool down naturally.”

Keepers use other methods to keep lions cool, such as freezing blocks of blood and giving them to cats to enjoy like a carnivorous Popsicle.

“It’s something they would lie down to eat,” said Joel Hamilton, director of the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo. “They hold the block with their front legs and the ice cools their arms as their internal temperature drops with the supply of cool moisture.”

Introductions between the cubs and their keepers were a slow process. They started by helping the cubs get used to the scents of the keepers. This involved the keepers entering the feeding building while the cubs were in another room.

At first, the doors leading from the feeding room inside the enclosure were left open so the cats could exit if they felt uncomfortable. This allowed the keepers to feed the cats indoors and clean their enclosure while the cubs ate.

“This is the first time we’ve cared for lions that weren’t born in our zoo,” said Caitland Dallas, another zookeeper who helps care for the lions. “It was a new experience for us and the cats. The secret for most cats is not in their hearts, but in their stomachs. Once they realized we usually show up with food they decided to let us stay.

The three cubs bond closely with each other, especially Chadwick, who calls his siblings when he can’t see them. This usually only happens during the feeding period. Sometimes the cat lets his nerves get the better of him and he can only eat a few pounds of meat before he starts to miss his brother and sister.

The Guardians gave him a smaller supply in hopes that his hunger will cause him to fully enter the supply building, and he may learn that a full meal awaits him there.

“The Pittsburgh Zoo described Chad as a bit precarious,” Kenwright said. “We hope he will have more confidence in his skin. Their whole world has just changed, so he just needs a little more time to get comfortable.

Chadwick was certainly at his best one recent morning when his siblings emerged from the feed building. He butted heads with Daniel encouraging his brother to play, and followed Regina as she investigated the bottle of milk Dallas gives them as a treat.

“Dairy in large amounts can upset a cat’s stomach,” she said. “But a small amount like this is a nice treat that they appreciate and it helps cool them down.”

Once the cubs had their dose of spray milk, they curled up in a heap to take a nap.

“The heat never keeps them from sleeping on top of each other,” Kenwright said. “They could sleep a few feet apart and be a lot cooler, but they just want to be as close as possible.”

The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo seeks to play a greater role in the Zoological Association of America’s lion breeding programs. Manager Hamilton took in the cubs in hopes of finding a cage mate for the zoo’s other lioness, Nandi.

African lions were officially placed on the vulnerable species list in 2020. In response, the ZAA has reached out to zoos nationwide to help increase healthy breeding.

For lions to be bred, their family trees must be mapped to avoid inbreeding. Each zoo wishing to participate in the program must have the genetics of its lions mapped.

“The whole point is to have a science-based breeding program, where animals are sent or received, it’s all based on genetics,” Hamilton said. “Looking at who should be paired with whom to maintain genetic vigor for multiple generations is all based on their family trees.”

Once the cubs are a little more settled, zoo staff will begin the introduction process between Nandi and the male cubs. If she takes a liking to them, breeding them will help boost the lion population.

Hamilton hopes there will be a successful mating and an opportunity to send the possible cubs to a zoo with eligible mates. With the widespread work of zoos across America, the African lion population will have a chance to increase so that the species is no longer considered vulnerable.

Hayley Daugherty is a contributing writer.