Neka, a 6-year-old African lion at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, gave birth to three healthy cubs Saturday night, officials said Sunday.
According to keepers, the three not-so-little kittens entered the world between about 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. The first-time mom and her new family are doing well in their behind-the-scenes maternity den.
The litter represents the first offspring for Neka and Zawadi Mungu, the cubs’ 5-year-old father.
“We’re all delighted at the arrival of these cubs and very proud of Neka,” said curator Jennifer Davis, who oversees the zoo’s Africa and primate areas. “It’s terrific to see her taking such good care of her babies. There’s still a lot that could happen, so we’re being very cautious and giving her as much quiet time as possible. But so far she seems to be taking to motherhood quite naturally.”
“For a first-time mom, we couldn’t ask for anything more,” agreed Laura Weiner, senior keeper for the zoo’s Africa area. “She cleaned her cubs off right away when they came out, and she’s been allowing them to nurse. The cubs all appear to be healthy. They’re moving around well, and they have a lot of energy.”
Animal-care staff have taken a hands-off approach, but are closely monitoring the litter via a surveillance camera to make sure the cubs continue to nurse properly and that everything is going well. Keepers plan to give Neka and the cubs complete privacy for at least the first 24 hours.
After a few days — depending on Neka’s comfort level — staff may try to go in for a quick veterinary checkup on the litter, at which time they would be able to determine the cubs’ genders.
Lion cubs are born after a gestation period of a little over three months (105 to 115 days). They typically weigh about 3 pounds at birth and are born blind, their eyes opening within a week or two.
Neka and her cubs are off exhibit in a private maternity den to allow the new family a comfortable place to bond. After about six to eight weeks, if the cubs are healthy and continue to thrive, animal-care staff will determine whether they are ready for a public debut.
“We will be watching the cubs closely over the next several weeks to assess their development,” Davis said. “The first couple of days are especially important. Our staff has been completely dedicated to giving Neka everything she needed for a successful birth. Thankfully, Neka hasn’t needed much help from us. So far, she is doing a great job on her own.”
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.
“They’re all around the same age,” Davis said. “That made it easier for them to bond and become a unified pride. We’re happy there was a strong connection between Neka and Zawadi.”
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 East 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.”