Neka's 12-day-old cubs receive their first health checkup at the Oregon Zoo
Veterinarians and animal-care staff conducted their first examination of Neka's 12-day-old lion cubs at the Oregon Zoo today, and answered a question that's been on a lot of people's minds: All three cubs are girls.
The neonatal checkup took place a day earlier than planned after keepers — who had been monitoring the young lions via surveillance camera — noticed one of the cubs wasn't interacting with the other two.
"One is definitely larger and more 'outspoken' than the others — we've nicknamed her Feisty."
—Jennifer Davis, Africa curator
"We had planned on doing our first exam tomorrow," said curator Jennifer Davis, who oversees the zoo's Africa and primate areas. "But this morning keepers noticed one cub seemed lethargic and wasn't active with the other two. We reviewed our surveillance tapes, and saw that she hadn't nursed at any of the overnight feedings, so we decided to move the exam to today."
Davis said animal-care staffers first separated Neka from the cubs by offering a treat.
"We gave her a nice hearty bone to enjoy while we conducted the exam," Davis said. "Neka did great and didn't seem upset at all that we were in there with her babies — it really shows the great relationship and trust she has with her care team."
With mom thus occupied, the zoo's animal-care staff entered the private maternity den and conducted a complete physical exam on all three cubs, confirming that all are female, with weights ranging from about 2½ to 4½ pounds.
"The one we are concerned about was dehydrated and had low body temperature and blood-sugar levels," Davis said. "We warmed her up and gave her some supplemental food and fluids. The other two appear to be robust and healthy. They've been nursing regularly, and they're moving around a lot and vocalizing. One is definitely larger and more 'outspoken' than the others — we've nicknamed her Feisty."
Animal-care staff provided an additional supplemental feeding for the smallest cub this afternoon, and they will continue monitoring the lions.
"We're still very concerned about her," Davis said. "We're just trying to give her every chance possible, and we're all hopeful that she just needs a little boost and can soon get back to nursing alongside her sisters."
Keepers report that Neka continues to be an excellent mom, which they consider especially good news since this is her first experience raising a litter.
"After the exams, we put all the cubs back together and allowed Neka back in with them," Davis said. "She checked on her babies like a good mom, but then she went right back to her bone."
For the time being, Neka and her cubs will remain off exhibit in their private maternity den to allow the new family a comfortable place to bond. In another month or two, if the cubs are healthy and the weather is warm enough, animal-care staff will evaluate whether they are ready for a public debut.
"We will continue to take a hands-off approach as much as possible," Davis said. "But we'll be watching them closely over the next several weeks to assess their development."
Neka, a 6-year-old African lion at the Oregon Zoo, gave birth to cubs Sept. 7. The litter represents the first offspring for Neka and Zawadi Mungu, the cubs' 5-year-old father.
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 Wild Animal 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.
"Fifteen years ago, lions were abundant in much of Africa," Davis said. "But now they are disappearing at alarming rates. Every time a person visits the zoo, part of the admission goes toward helping protect lions and other African predators. A litter of cubs will be a great way to inspire people to act for wildlife. Hopefully, we can start a new chapter in the conservation of a species that is sharply declining in the wild."