Makini and Tajiri, our African lions, have very distinct personalities. Makini, the male, is a bit of an introvert with a serious demeanor. Tajiri, on the other hand, is more outgoing and social. In the Zoo community, the pairing of animals for breeding is an “arranged marriage” based on the individual’s family tree or the best genetic lines. While not vastly different from young males leaving their natal group in their natural environment to find mates, the males often have some work to do in winning over females. In Philadelphia, it turned out that Tajiri would need to convince Makini.
In introducing Makini to Tajiri, we wanted to take the measured steps needed for as safe and friendly an introduction as possible. The first part of the process is for the keepers to build relationships with the cats as individuals, then to acclimate each cat to back-of-house bedroom space, as well as to the exhibit yards. By using the bedroom and exhibit space separately on an alternating basis, they begin to “meet” each other by vocalizations and scents. Once both of them feel comfortable, it is time to give them visual access to one another. Big Cat Falls provides the opportunity for “soft” introductions by having yards and trailways where cats can see each other through meshing while still divided within their own spaces. For Makini and Tajiri, this phase was an exciting time. From several feet away, Tajiri was immediately positive, even somewhat of a flirt! She rolled on the ground, turned circles rubbing on the mesh fencing, and blew soft sounding vocals Makini’s way. Makini, however, was not nearly as enamored on these first dates. He seemed to feel it was his job to bluster and fuss and show that he actually outweighed her by 100 pounds.
But high interest remained between them after a few weeks of watching from a distance, and Makini seemed calmer. Introductions then moved indoors, where they were able to actually touch each other through a special mesh door between bedrooms. Again, Tajiri was excited, and Makini needed more time to consider his options. Tajiri spent her first nights laying up against the mesh panel, as close as she could get to Mak. Makini, on the other hand, kept her under observation from across the room. After a bit, Tajiri went into a heat cycle, and he began to look for her when she moved away. At this point, we felt it was time to open the panel and allow them in the same space.
In the first several days, time together is short and always monitored by keeper staff. Makini continued to be tense and unsure but not aggressive. Tajiri was clear that he was a good partner, and slowly began to touch and push at him, even batting his nose when he wasn’t paying attention! This broke the ice, and within weeks they were an established pair, playing, sleeping, and exploring their exhibit together. Makini showed natural male lion behavior and was actually a little protective, working to keep Tajiri from the exhibit glass when visitors tried to take a peek!
In March 2014, during Tajiri’s second reproductive cycle as a pair, they were comfortable enough for successful breeding that lasted about three days. When she came out of cycle, they maintained a strong bond, and we settled in to monitor Tajiri for any outcome of the breeding behavior.
By Kay Buffamonte, First Niagara Big Cat Falls Lead Keeper