Several things are happening behind the scenes to assist the lion cubs in making their eventual public debut. Now that Tajiri is permitting her cubs to venture out of the den in view of keeper staff more frequently, some of the real preparation begins. Up to this point, Tajiri has handled raising the cubs on her own, but now, the keepers begin to work socializing the cubs to be comfortable in the presence of people.
During most of the hours that keepers are present, the cubs have primarily spent their time in the cubbing den, which has been closed to direct view. But now, one privacy panel to a mesh gate has been carefully removed. This still allows the young family to spend time out of sight but also provides the cubs with more light and an advanced view of keepers’ workspace.
At the same time, keepers have begun in earnest to try to feed the cubs solid food. The goal is to have the cubs recognize that keepers bring their food. Once they realize that mom anticipates food from keepers, the keepers can start building a relationship with the cubs as well.
Tajiri has had an opinion about this phase of cub socialization. She comes out of the den, vocalizing to the keepers when they enter the space. This prompts the cubs to move back into the den—it’s a slow training process and we will take each step as slowly as Tajiri needs us to. Offering the cubs small bits of meat around Tajiri’s feet while also feeding her directly seems to be working. Still nursing, the cubs were only experimenting with the taste of meat, but they have been actually consuming more of it recently.
In the lion habitat, we have removed some vines and branches and exchanged big toys for small ones, and we are adding some mulch to the area where the little ones will need to step down. We will have the grass mowed and some of the tall grasses removed on the public pathway.
It is also important for Tajiri to feel as though she has control of her environment once she brings the cubs outside, so we will install partial barriers in front of the public viewing glass so that guests will keep a respectful distance until Tajiri is comfortable enough to let her little ones approach.
After all of this activity, we hope to try to introduce Makini to his family. There is a mesh panel between his bedrooms and Tajiri’s, so she can currently see him on her terms. So far, though, Tajiri has been preoccupied with mothering the cubs, which is not uncommon for lion mothers at this stage. Keepers did offer Tajiri the opportunity to meet with Makini a couple of weeks ago, but she was not yet ready. On her schedule, we will continue to make this available to her and the cubs.
By Kay Buffamonte, First Niagara Big Cat Falls Lead Keeper