KING OF THE JUNGLE
By Susana Cortázar
Majestic. Regal. Imposing. Royal. Stately. Powerful. They inspire fear, respect, and awe. Yet, they are one of the most beloved and admired creatures. Perhaps because of their beauty. Perhaps because of their poise and size. Or perhaps just because they are lions and people like lions. The descriptions could go on and on, but how many people can say they have actually seen the King of the Jungle in person? Well, you can, if you have visited Zoo Miami in the last couple of years.
At Zoo Miami, we have two brother lions – Kwame and Jabari – who will be turning four years old in September. They have completely different personalities – like human siblings usually do. One is social; the other more of a loner. Sexually mature at three years of age, and physically mature at six, male lions can reach 500 pounds, with females weighing between 275 – 350 pounds. Lions can be larger in captivity, where they are fed regularly, as opposed to lions in the wild who hunt for prey and are only successful approximately 20% of the time. Contrary to what you might believe, lions can run around 40 miles an hour for short periods, but they don’t have the stamina to run longer distances. As youngsters they like to climb trees, but the older they get, the more difficult it becomes.
Photo by Ron Magill
Lions are stalkers and ambush hunters, normally attacking their prey by surprise. While this usually occurs as the prey is around a body of water drinking and unaware the lions are coming from behind, lions have also been observed stealing food from hyena, leopard and cheetah kills. Lions are the tallest of all felines and the second heaviest – after the Amur tiger. Unlike tigers, lions are not fond of water, so if their prey is near deep water, the lion may let the prey get away rather than go in the water. Good thing to remember if you ever come face-to-face with one. Run for the nearest deep body of water, after checking for crocodiles of course!
The most social of all felines, lions live groups called prides, usually made up of five or six related females, their cubs, and one or two males. Why is the female to male ratio so disparate, you might ask? Well, in prides, it is the females who hunt for prey so the more females in a pride, the more food available for the pride and the more choices for males to mate. Females are lighter, don’t have manes (which helps camouflage the males) and work together to capture prey so they are more likely to be successful with the hunt than a single male.
Photo by Ron Magill
When cubs reach a certain age, they are forced out of their family pride in order for them to begin forming their own prides. Until these animals form new prides they are called nomads. Eventually, when the young lions mature, they find a pride and, in turn, send the juvenile male lions away to learn the same life lessons.
One of Zoo Miami’s zookeepers, Norberto “Chico” Vazquez, is passionate about his animals and he has been working with lions most of his time here. His eyes gleam when he talks about them. A keeper at Zoo Miami for 19 years, his love of animals dates back to his childhood, when he rode horses, had pets such as crocodiles and pythons, and hung out at his uncle’s farm, where animals abounded.
Chico feeds Zoo Miami’s lions an all-inclusive diet of horse meat (which is the leanest meat, and tastes like zebra – the lion’s favorite prey – and wildebeest) almost every day. Chico states, “I feed them enough to sustain adequate weight.” When asked what he feeds them for enrichment, Chico says that once a week, “they get a knuckle bone; it helps them exercise their jaw – something they don’t get much of in captivity, as they don’t have to tear flesh and bone – as well as keep their gums clean and their teeth sharper.” I wondered if lions eat any vegetables and Chico explains that, “when they hunt in the wild, lions first tend to go for the prey’s soft parts, such as the abdomen and stomach, where the lions can then feast on the prey’s undigested vegetables.” When I asked how much lions poop, he replied, “Oh, man, a lot!”
The lion’s favorite prey are zebra and wildebeest, followed by gazelles and antelopes. Adult lions have few enemies but are occasionally preyed upon by crocodiles and hyenas. Once found from southern Europe to Africa to India, the primary reasons for the decline in their numbers are hunting and loss of habitat due to human encroachment. Chico says that lions in Africa “almost became extinct in the 1900s – 1920s because safaris to Africa to shoot lions became an international sport. Since then, most wild animals are kept in reserves in Africa, which has greatly aided in increasing their population.”
Lions mark their territory by “urinating and roaring. Interestingly enough, no two lions’ urine is the same, as their diets may differ and, therefore, the urine smell differs as well,” says Chico. He continues by adding that other “territorial markings include scraping trees with their nails and by rubbing trees and their environment with glands on the side of their neck inside their mane which leave marks letting others know he’s been there.”
Just like humans, females are attracted to some males and not others. “Some researchers suggest the thicker, darker, bigger the male’s mane, the more the female is attracted to him,” says Chico. Sort of like our human version of tall, dark and handsome. There are bald males, who are usually rejected by females and also lions with blond manes who don’t attract as many females.
Our lions at Zoo Miami go in their “night houses” when the zoo closes. This allows the keepers to do some basic training (using operant conditioning) with to examine the animal more closely for medical conditions. Keepers here do not come in direct contact with any potentially dangerous animals. For example, Chico does target training with his lions and has the night house barriers between him and the lion. This training consists of a stick with a ball at the end. When Chico places the stick at a specific place outside the enclosure, he says to the lion, “target,” and when the lion reaches the ball, Chico feeds him horse meat as a reward. He places the target at various heights so he can examine the lions’ feet, nails, teeth, and underbelly, to ensure they are healthy.
Chico doing "target" training
I asked him what other ways he can tell if an animal is “off” and he stated that you can tell, “just like you can tell with a pet or a family member – the facial expression changes, the animal becomes lethargic, the eyes get puffy. If an animal doesn’t eat, it is reported to our animal care supervisors and zoo veterinarians, who will visually check the animals. Sometimes we are able to draw blood from them to check for signs of illness. As a last resort, we may have to immobilize them for a full physical to determine the extent of what is wrong with the animal so proper steps may be taken to rectify the situation.”
Chico checking lion through "target" training
I asked Chico if he had any last thoughts about lions and he talked about a fascinating practice passed from generation to generation among certain tribes in Africa. “The head of the tribe – a male – mirrors the behavior of the lion by having many women around who do the hunting. When the women return, the man eats first and the best parts of the meal, then the women eat, and the children get whatever is left, just like in a lion’s pride,” says Chico, adding, “No wonder he’s called King of the Jungle!”
It is interesting to note, though, that lions don’t actually live in the jungle, but are found primarily on the open savannahs or veldts of Africa and one small population still survives in the Gir forest reserve in India. Maybe a better moniker would be “King of the Savannah” or “King of the Veldt.”
Photos by Susana Cortázar unless otherwise indicated.