Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado is thrilled to welcome three roly-poly African Lion cubs! The cubs were born on June 25 to first-time parents Lomela, a seven-year-old female, and Abuto, a three-year-old male. Mom and the cubs—two males and one female—appear to be healthy and doing well.
“Lomela and her babies are currently off-exhibit in the Lion building to give them time to bond and the cubs time to grow,” Dina Bredahl, animal care manager, said. “The cubs are nursing and are quite active for being less than a week old.”
Lions are pregnant for an average of 110 days. Zoo staff set up a camera system weeks prior to the birth, so they could monitor Lomela in two different nesting locations. Animal keepers were able to observe the birth, and can now keep close tabs on mom and cubs without disturbing them. The zoo set up a second video camera monitor above the Lion relaxation room window, so zoo guests can see the new additions to the lion pride.
Bredahl says, “If they remain healthy, as they appear to be now, we will take a hands-off approach and let Lomela take care of her babies without intervention.” In keeping with zoo tradition, the Lion cubs will not be named until they are at least 30 days old.
For now, Abuto often spends his days with Zwena (Lomela’s sister), while Lomela takes care of the cubs, although he appears to be aware of the new additions. He will be reintroduced to Lomela and the cubs when staff feels that both first-time parents are ready.
Abuto was specifically chosen to breed with Lomela because of their genetic compatibility. The breeding program is known within the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) as a Species Survival Plan, or SSP. The breeding of the Zoo’s Lions is important to the SSP and to the zoo. Wild African Lions have faced a population decline of 42% over the past 21 years and their species continues to decline due to habitat loss. The zoo’s hope is that guests will fall in love with their pride and fight to help save their wild counterparts.
“These cubs are truly miracle babies,” Amy Schilz, Lead Giraffe/Lion Keeper, said. “We weren’t sure whether Lomela would be able to conceive.”
To ensure that the zoo would only have genetically recommended breeding in their Lions, the AZA recommended rice-sized birth-control implants for carnivores called deslorelin. The implants are designed to remain in place indefinitely, while only providing contraception for one year. However, recent studies are showing more lasting contraceptive impacts. After having received birth control implants, many zoos are finding that their female cats are unable to get pregnant.
In order to give Lomela and her sister, Zwena, the best chance of conceiving, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo decided to remove the tiny implants – a surgery not yet tried at other zoos. In 2013, zoo veterinarians and a skilled ultrasonographer, Dr. Jason Arble, removed Lomela’s and Zwena’s deslorelin implants.
“A year after the implants were removed, hormone testing showed that both Lomela and Zwena were cycling,” Schilz said. “We knew we were one step closer to having lion cubs, but we also knew it was still a long shot. Very few other Lions have gotten pregnant after having been on a birth control implant."
“For the last year, Abuto has been seen breeding with both Lomela and Zwena,” Schilz said. “Every time our females missed a cycle, we’d get really excited, but a few weeks later they’d be observed breeding again, which was a sign that they had not conceived. When we didn’t see Lomela and Abuto breed for a while, we were optimistic. We did a fecal hormone test to confirm she was pregnant and it showed she was!”
Zwena’s hormone tests show she’s not currently pregnant, but the zoo is hopeful that one day, she’ll also be a mom.