4 African lion cubs are born at National Zoo

National Zoo welcomes four African lion cubs.
National Zoo welcomes four African lion cubs. (Courtesy of Smithsonian National Zoo)
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The keepers of the African lions at the National Zoo were taking no chances with four newborn cubs this week.

They reviewed the kind of hay they used in May when a cub inhaled a "seed head," caught pneumonia and died. They considered other types of bedding. They thought about picking out all the hayseeds. Then, colleagues at a zoo facility in rural Virginia offered a crop called orchard grass and suggested harvesting it before it sprouted seeds.

The result was that when 5-year-old Shera delivered her first litter between 10:30 p.m. Monday and about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, the newborns landed in what one curator called "the fluffiest, softest hay with no seed heads that I ever saw in my life."

Time will tell the effect of their foresight, but, on Tuesday, zoo officials were elated and optimistic about the arrival of the four fragile cubs.

"We're stoked," said Craig Saffoe, interim curator of great cats and bears. "We couldn't be happier right now."

The father is Luke, 4. The zoo has another female, Nababiep, 6, who is Shera's sister and the mother of the cub that died.

A litter of four cubs is at the upper end of average, Saffoe said, noting that lions generally have from one to four cubs at a time. A lion's gestation period is about 110 days.

He said the births, which took place in the lion enclosure, were observed via a video camera that keepers had been monitoring because, among other indicators, the female looked pregnant and had become restless.

"The worst thing we can do is stress this cat out," he said. "This is like the most stressful event that any animal can have, short of being chased as prey. We stay as far away as we possibly can."

Once the first cub was spotted wiggling in the hay, "at that point everything is up in the air," Saffoe said.

"For a first-time mom, you don't know how she's going to react," he said. "There's always a chance that she could cannibalize the cubs." In such an event, he said, "you couldn't do a thing."

But Shera was attentive. "Almost immediately after [the first cub] was born she started grooming it," he said. "She's been more attentive than we could have asked for. Things look really good right now."

Saffoe said he and the other keepers felt great relief.

"There's this huge weight that gets lifted off your shoulders when you see . . . the cubs are born alive," he said.

Saffoe said keepers will keep a close eye on the mother and her cubs for the next few weeks. The cubs will get a physical exam in about two weeks, at which time the first official photos might be taken. The cubs could go on public display this fall, he said.

By that time, there could be even more lion cubs. The zoo thinks Nababiep is pregnant, Saffoe said, and could be due in late September.

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