Who's your mama? Zoo animals vie for "Mom of Year" honors

April 29, 2014 - 4:06pm

Keepers seek public's help in choosing between lion, otter, elephant and condor moms

The Oregon Zoo will be naming its 2014 Zoo Mother of the Year next week, and the public is invited to help choose the winner. Keepers have narrowed the field to four top-notch moms and are asking people to vote for their favorite.

This year's finalists are a California condor named Timocho, a North American river otter named Tilly, an Asian elephant named Rose-Tu and an African lion named Neka. Online votes will be accepted through Thursday, May 8, at 5 p.m. The zoo will announce its 2014 Mother of the Year on Friday, May 9, at 10:30 a.m.

"We have four very strong candidates this year," said Kim Smith, zoo director. "I'm still deciding who to vote for. Some have overcome tremendous adversity, others have been exceptionally nurturing. They all represent species whose natural habitats are threatened, and they've each done a lot to inspire zoo visitors. Once people make that emotional connection with an animal, they're much more likely to care about the future of a species."


The zoo was filled with pride when Neka, a 6-year-old African lion, gave birth to three not-so-little kittens Sept. 7. 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," said curator Jennifer Davis, who oversees the zoo's Africa and primate areas. "She just started grooming the smaller cub right along with her other two, almost as if she'd never been away."


For much of 2012, the biggest developing story at the Oregon Zoo was the baby growing inside Rose-Tu. Late that fall, after 22 months of pregnancy, she delivered a healthy, 300-pound female calf, Lily — but, of course, her work as a mom didn't end there. Lily was born big, with an outsize personality to match. Keepers have described her as a "spitfire," and she's had a huge impact on the zoo's world-famous Asian elephant family. "Young elephants are brought up within an extended, multigenerational family that includes the biological mother along with aunties and friends," said Bob Lee, the zoo's elephant curator. "So we consider a vote for Rose-Tu to be honoring Shine and Chendra as well. With Rose and Shine focused on raising Lily, Chendra has taken on a natural role as a teacher to 5-year-old Samudra. Chendra was an orphan, so this gives her a place in the family she never had before. That's important for the well-being of all of our elephants."


Last year's Mom of the Year is a contender once again. North American river otter Tilly gave birth to her second pup, Ziggy, Nov. 8, and keepers say the new arrival proved quite a handful. Named after the river that flows down Mount Hood through Zigzag Canyon, the young otter seemed to grow into his name — zigging this way and that, and scampering away from Tilly when she tried to lead him indoors. "Human parents often notice that the second child is much more independent," said Julie Christie, senior keeper for the zoo's North America area. "We definitely noticed that with our second otter. As soon as Ziggy started walking, he was on the go. He's a little motorboat." Independent streak or no, young river otters are still very dependent on their moms and have to be taught to swim. And, keepers point out, Tilly is the only Mom of the Year candidate to give birth twice in a single year; her first pup, Mo, was born last January. Watch a video of their swim lessons.


All moms have it hard, but few have overcome as much as California condor Timocho. Hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo more than 15 years ago, she was released into the wild later that year as part of the national effort to repopulate the critically endangered species. She did well for several years, but in 2005 she was hit in the face by a shotgun blast. Pellets from the blast damaged one of her eyes and her tongue, and fractured bones in and around her mouth. Though her situation looked bleak, Timocho was nursed back to health and transferred to the Oregon Zoo's breeding program in 2008. "Timocho has come a long way," said Kelli Walker, the zoo's senior condor keeper. "She can't go back into the wild, but she has been able to overcome some serious disabilities. She and her partner, Willie, have helped five chicks into the world — one a year starting in 2010 — with two now flying free in California and Arizona." Timocho's most recent chick hatched April 11, and Walker says she has been a caring and nurturing mom.