From “Burg to the Gulf: Lions Move into the Zoo Breeding Program”

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

Adapting to a new home is a great feat for anyone, including the three young predators Chadwick, Regina and Daniel.

The staff at the zoo in Gulf Shores, Ala., worked hard to prepare for the cubs’ arrival. They made sure there was a swimming pool in the cat coop to help fight the southern heat.

“They were a lot more gentle when they first got here,” Ashlyn Kinwright, a zookeeper who deals with the cubs daily, said in mid-July. “They threw out a lot quickly to try to calm down naturally.”

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

“It’s something they’ll lie down to eat,” said Joel Hamilton, director of the Gulf Coast Zoo in Alabama. “They grab the block with their front paws and the ice cools down their arms as the internal temperature drops as the cold moisture is absorbed.”

The introductions between the cubs and their guards were a slow process. They began to help the cubs get used to the smells of the guards. This necessitated the entry of the guards into the feeding building while the cubs were in another room.

Initially, the doors leading from the feeding room to the inside of the enclosure were left open so that the cats could leave if they felt uncomfortable. That slowly turned into the guards’ ability to feed the cats inside and clean the enclosure while the cubs eat.

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

The three cubs are closely related to each other, especially Chadwick, who calls out for his siblings when he can’t see them. This usually only happens during feeding time. Sometimes a cat lets his nerves down to the best of his ability and can only eat a few pounds of meat before he starts to miss his brother and sister.

The guards would give him a smaller diet in the hope that his hunger would make him enter the entire feeding premises, and he could learn that a full meal was waiting for him there.

“The Pittsburgh Zoo has described Chad as somewhat unsafe,” Kinwright said. “We hope he becomes more confident in his own skin. Their whole world has changed, so he just needs a little more time to relax.”

Chadwick was definitely at his best one morning as soon as his siblings walked out of the feeding building. He bumped into Daniel’s heads and encouraged his brother to play, and followed Regina as she investigated the bottle of milk that Dallas had given her as a treat.

“Dairy in large quantities can upset a cat’s stomach,” she said. “But a small amount like this is a good treat that they enjoy and helps them calm down.”

After the cubs filled with the mist of milk, they cuddled the pile for a nap.

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

The Gulf Coast Zoo in Alabama is looking to become a larger part of the American Zoological Society’s lion breeding programs. Director Hamilton took the cubs in hopes of finding a cage mate for another zoo’s lion, Nandi.

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

In order for lions to be bred, their families must be mapped out to avoid any inbreeding. Every zoo wishing to participate in the program must have a genetic map of their lions.

“The bottom line is to have a science-based breeding program, where the animals are sent or received, and it all depends on genetics,” Hamilton said. “The consideration of who should be paired with who maintains genetic activity for several generations depends on their family trees.”

Once the cubs have settled down a bit, the zoo staff will begin the introduction process between the Nandi and the male cubs. If she loves one, her breeding will help boost the lion population.

Hamilton hopes that there will be a successful mating and the opportunity to send potential cubs to a zoo with qualified mates. With the extensive work of zoos across America, the African lion will have an opportunity to increase so that the species is not considered endangered.

Hayley Dougherty is a contributing writer.

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