Leaping lions! Zoo's mega cat toy has whole pride pouncing

May 3, 2016 - 10:53am

Keepers encourage African lions' predatory instincts with a new enrichment game

Cat lovers have no doubt seen it before: the intense focus, followed by a claws-extended, acrobatic leap, some serious hang time and a not-always-graceful landing.

Watching a cat get airborne is always exhilarating, but even more so when it weighs 350 pounds. At the Oregon Zoo, a new enrichment game is helping to keep the African lions fit while bringing out their explosive predatory instincts.

"We try to encourage all the natural abilities that make them who they are — hunters."

—Beth Foster, lead keeper

Keepers have been using a mega version of this standard pet store item — constructed out of butcher paper and dubbed the "Leaping Lion Toy" — to mentally stimulate the big cats while encouraging natural hunting behaviors.

"They love it," said Beth Foster, lead keeper for the zoo's Predators of the Serengeti area. "We try to encourage all the natural abilities that make them who they are — hunters."

"Unlike caracals, lions are not known for their leaping abilities," Foster said. "They're so big and heavy, but they can actually jump really high. In the wild, lions use their powerful hind legs to spring on their prey at the last second and bring them down. Most of the animals they hunt can outrun them, so they need to ambush and overpower their prey in a sudden rush."

The Leaping Lion Toy is the most recent addition to a creative enrichment schedule meant to change up the cats' routines and keep their surroundings interesting. Keepers also hide food on rocks and under logs, spray animal scents and have even walked goats through the habitat (when the lions were not in it) to leave "game trails."

Foster notes that while the zoo's lions are doing well, their wild counterparts are in trouble. In December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced African lions would be protected under the Endangered Species Act, noting that they are in danger of extinction due to habitat loss, loss of prey base and increased conflict with humans.

"As recently as 25 years ago, we had healthy lion populations in much of Africa," Foster said. "But today they are vanishing at an alarming rate. The wild lion population is estimated to have dropped by 75 percent since 1990."