Wildlife Safari’s lions have a peculiar backstory. While our adult females were raised in a zoo pride, our adult males have had a bit of a journey to get to us. Their parents were gifted to the sheik of Qatar as cubs. Unfortunately, they bred too young and the female died in labor. Seeing that they needed special care by people with knowledge of their dietary and health needs (let alone the facilities to house them – lions make terrible house guests!), he gave them to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and they were eventually placed here at Wildlife Safari. Their genes are invaluable because they are the first in their line to breed in captivity – a rarity since we never remove animals from the wild for captive breeding. Our boys were paired with Mtai and Serafina, our two adult females. Since the girls came to us from a mother raised pride setting, they understand natural pride dynamics.
Lions are unique in that they are the only cats that live in a social group. All other cats are solitary. In a pride, there is typically one dominant breeding male lion. But since Tsavo and Enzi didn’t understand this, Mtai is most often the dominant lion in our unique pride. We are fortunate that all four of our adult lions have bred. They paired off nicely with Mtai and Tsavo having a litter of two, Arnold and Sharptooth, while Serafina and Enzi had a litter of four, Upepo, Dunia, Moto, and Maji. Our adults are all 4 years old and our cubs are just approaching their 2nd birthday.
Lions in captivity can live up to 20 years old, but they only reach about 10 in the wild. Males especially live shorter lives because of their aggression and hierarchy. In a pride setting, there’s one dominant breeding male and supporting non-breeding males. The females of the pride are all related, which is thought to help with hunting. Females are responsible for feeding the pride.
Lions are the 2nd largest cat, Siberian tigers are the first. Male lions can weigh up to 550 lbs and females up to 350 lbs. Males have a mane that protects their jugular when they are fighting. Since they will aim for the throat in a fight, it helps to have a thick matt of hair to shield them. The dark coloration in their mane is directly correlated to their levels of testosterone. More testosterone means a darker mane which attracts more females and warns other males of their “toughness”.
Lions are very vocal animals, especially when there is food present. Because they live in such a social setting, their grumbles and growls are a way of telling each other that “no, this is mine”. Lion’s can’t really make any of the noises that we associate with being a “happy cat”, like purring and meowing.
In a pride, it’s the female’s job to hunt and provide food. They tend to stalk prey up to 100 ft and then sprint to catch them, usually tackling and killing with a suffocating bite to the neck. Females are built more slender and agile for stalking and hunting while males are broad and muscular for defending the pride against competing males. Because of the unpredictability of hunts, they tend to gorge whenever they can because they don’t know when their next meal will be. Lions can engorge themselves up to 60 lbs of meat at a time. At Wildlife Safari, we break up that amount into more manageable portions along with two fast days to allow their gut bacteria to balance out.
Lions are nocturnal and sleep up to 19 hours a day. They can breed year round and females start cycling when they are 18 months to 2 years old. However, like many species, this cycling starts before their bodies are fully grown, so it is unsafe for them to breed for a while. It is very difficult to tell when a female is pregnant without doing an ultrasound or an x-ray.
Lions are altruistic, meaning females in a pride may take care of cubs that aren’t hers, they also tend to sync their cycle and give birth at the same time. So females are usually all lactating at the same time and can nurse all the cubs in the pride.
All lions are born with spots called “rosettes” that fade as they grow older. These are not true spots, like those in cheetahs and tigers. So if you were to shave a cub, the spots would not grow back. Whereas if you shaved a cheetah or tiger, their patterns would still show on their skin. Female cubs stay within the pride for the rest of their lives while male cubs are usually kicked out by the dominant male by the time they are 2. They then form a “bachelor band” until they are large enough to take over another pride.
Lions are listed as Vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because they are declining alarmingly in the areas between protected National Parks. As human population expands and causes overgrazing and prey decline, lions will turn to livestock as a food source. This puts them in conflict with farmers, who may set traps in an attempt to keep their livestock safe. Although lions reproduce relatively quickly, the killing outstrips the lions’ ability to replenish their numbers.
Our lions are ambassadors for their species that help teach the public about lion conservation and human conflict with wildlife. If you’d like to meet our lion pride up close, we have private encounters every day. Although lions are able to tolerate high temperatures, our cubs actually love the cool Oregon winter weather. Come watch them play!