By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 8:48 PM
In a few weeks, the keepers at the National Zoo won't be able to enter the enclosed yard with the lion cubs on Lion-Tiger Hill: The cubs will weigh more than 20 pounds, and their teeth and claws will make it too dangerous to handle them.
Even Tuesday, the keepers wore "bite" gloves made of Kevlar chain mail and heavy leather gauntlets and carried the hefty cubs by the scruff of their necks, teeth and claws facing outward.
Still, the four eldest cubs, born Aug. 31, looked deceptively forlorn and harmless as zoo experts gave them their swimming tests to make sure they could survive in the wide security moat that rims the outdoor enclosure.
One at a time, the cubs were carried outside and lowered into the chilly, leaf-strewn water as two keepers in wet suits stood in the moat and others watched from shore with nets handy, just in case.
All four cubs passed - swimming, in most cases, toward the concrete curb of the moat, where the keepers helped them clamber onto land and then carried them, sopping, back indoors.
Zoo experts said they concluded that they should probably install some ramps from the water to the land to make it easier for the cubs to climb out.
Lions are born with the ability to swim, zoo officials said, although the zoo's three adult lions don't spend much time in the moat, which is nine feet deep at its deepest.
Now that the zoo has seven cubs, born in recent months, experts wanted to make certain that the animals could survive in the water if they were to tumble in.
The cubs earned applause from zoo officials who were watching, as well as Zoo Director Dennis Kelly's praise for earning what he joked were their Red Cross swimming badges. "I would say they all passed the swim test," he said.