African lion Neka is named 2014 Mother of the Year

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Neka outpaces Asian elephant, river otter and California condor moms for top honors

With Election Day still more than a week away, much remains to be sorted out, but one race at least has already been decided: African lion Neka is the Oregon Zoo's 2014 Mother of the Year.

The race to determine this year's top mom drew more than 1,600 votes on the zoo's website over the past week. In the end, Neka came out on top with a little more than 50 percent of the vote, far outpacing Asian elephant Rose-Tu (20 percent), Tilly the river otter (17 percent) and California condor Timocho (13 percent).

"We had fun campaigning," said curator Jennifer Davis, who oversees the zoo's Africa and primate areas and is one of Neka's biggest fans. "As a first-time mom, Neka really deserves this honor. But all four of the candidates have been wonderful moms. Each of them has been an inspiration to zoo visitors and keepers alike."

The zoo was filled with pride Sept. 7 when Neka, a 6-year-old African lion, gave birth to three not-so-little kittens, subsequently named Kamali, Zalika and Angalia. Keepers say the first-time mom has been very nurturing and attentive — grooming, nursing and wrangling her cubs from the moment they were born.

Despite her exceptional mothering skills, the smallest and weakest of the litter, Kamali, faced health issues early on, requiring an intensive-care intervention and a nine-day stay in the zoo's Veterinary Medical Center. Keepers weren't sure how Neka would react when they returned the little one to her private maternity den, but she accepted her cub straightaway.

"Neka seemed to pick up right where she'd left off," Davis said. "She just started grooming the smaller cub right along with her other two, almost as if she'd never been away."

The zoo's three adult lions — Zawadi, Neka and Kya — came to the Oregon Zoo in 2009 based on a breeding recommendation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Species Survival Plan for African lions. Zawadi, the male, came from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and the females, Neka and Kya, came from the Virginia Zoo and Wisconsin's Racine Zoo respectively.

The AZA has established Species Survival Plans for many threatened or endangered species — cooperative breeding programs that help create genetically diverse, self-sustaining populations to guarantee the long-term future of animals. These SSPs also support relevant field projects, research and public education to help prevent animal endangerment and extinction.