From the minute that the first cub was born, Tajiri has been clear about her role as a lion mother. Displaying strong maternal behavior, she guarded the cubbing den and the cubs from view for the first few weeks. Her regular keepers only went into the lion bedroom area for brief periods each day. Even so, Tajiri barely came to the door of the den, and she only ventured out to eat and drink in the early evenings when the lights were off and the keeper staff had left. This is typical behavior for a big cat mother with dependent young. Understanding these needs, we gave her all the space and time required to feel comfortable.
Until the cubs began to venture out, keepers were able to monitor the young family through closed circuit camera. In the first several days, we saw them crawling over mom and then trying to stand up. All four were quite mobile and actively nursing. By camera view, we were able to see that all four cubs’ eyes were open on the fifth day. On the eighth day, Tajiri was comfortable enough to come out of the den on her own to eat when keepers offered her a meal By the tenth day, Tajiri took her first short break from the cubs, coming out of the den to visit and solicit attention when the keepers went in to check on her, vocalizing all the while.
Finally, on day 20, one intrepid cub made the first attempt to climb out of the den into the big bedroom. It didn’t quite make it on its own, so Tajiri groomed it for its efforts and brought it firmly back down into the den, then moved to block the den door herself. For the next couple of days, one or more cubs would take a look out of the den, but Tajiri would always bring them back. On day 23, as a keeper was putting food out for mom, Tajiri brought a cub out of the den into full view—for a total of three minutes!
Then she took it right back and blocked the door again.
The cubs are currently 47 days old. They are all coming out of the den regularly now and exploring the big bedrooms. They are very keyed into their mother’s cues, and they run right back into the den as a group when she communicates (with low grumbles) that they should—which is still frequently. We have given them a small ball to manipulate and a larger toy to climb on. Just this last week, they were given access to an additional holding space that allows them to feel the outside air as they choose. When yawning, we can see that they have all of their baby teeth, and we have also seen them drinking water. One of the cubs even seems to like to play in water, sometimes splashing its siblings!
As keepers, our primary goal now is to introduce them to solid food, working with mom to allow us to approach the fencing to feed both her and the cubs simultaneously. This step takes some time. The cubs continue to actively nurse and are learning that meat might also taste good. Tajiri dictates how much time she will allow keepers to have access to the cubs, who are now starting to make little forays into the big bedrooms even when mom is lying a bit of a distance away.
Stay tuned for continued updates on their development!
By Kay Buffamonte, First Niagara Big Cat Falls Lead Keeper