Time for families, herds, prides to gather together

As holidays approach, zoo's elephant and lion babies meet some new family members

The holiday season is a time for family gatherings — even, it seems, for some of the best known animals at the Oregon Zoo. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, Asian elephant Lily — who turns 1 on Nov. 30 — met her father, Tusko, for the first time, while Neka's 2-month-old African lion cubs have been scampering around their grassy Predators of the Serengeti habitat with "Auntie" Kya.

Lily's first meeting with dad — on Nov. 18 — was a brief yet dramatic encounter supervised by mother Rose-Tu and the other adult females, Shine and Chendra. After a cautious initial greeting and head nudge from Tusko, the rest of the herd quickly encircled the two and erupted into trumpeting that could be heard throughout Washington Park. The females fell into a row, creating a protective barrier through which Lily and Tusko touched trunks.

"The first introduction between a calf and its father is always an emotional occasion for the elephants — not to mention those of us who care for them," said Bob Lee, the zoo's elephant curator. "Lily and Tusko were clearly curious about each other, and it was touching to see the entire herd rally to give them a comfortable experience."

As in the wild, elephant bulls at the Oregon Zoo seldom stay long with the matriarchal herd, making only brief appearances to check the status of females.

Two days after the elephant family gathering, Neka's three lion cubs had their first encounter with Kya, the pride's other adult female.

"The cubs pounced on Kya as soon as they saw her, playing with her tail and chewing on her ears," said Laura Weiner, senior keeper of the zoo's Africa area. "Kya's expression was priceless — 'What are these tiny things tumbling around me?' She gave in quickly though, and she's been a very patient and playful aunt."

On Monday, Kya, Neka and the cubs ventured outdoors as a pride for the first time.

"It's great to see the five girls stalking and chasing each other and exploring the habitat together," Weiner said. "Kya is helping Neka teach the cubs how to be lions, and she's formed a very close bond with them."

Zawadi Mungu, the cubs' father, will be gradually introduced to the playful trio over the next few months.

"In the wild, the male lion's role is to protect the cubs and females from other males," Weiner said. "Most of the time, they just tolerate the cubs. These three really seem to like swatting and chewing on their mom's tail, so I think Zawadi's mane is in for it."