WINSTON — Two new lionesses moved into Wildlife Safari a few weeks ago, and the two resident lions immediately took notice.
They intently watch each other through their enclosures and perk up when they hear the others, lead carnivore keeper An Nguyen said.
“They’re really interested in each other. The boys are really curious right now,” he said.
Mtai and Serafina, both born Feb. 14, 2012, at the St. Louis Zoo, were moved to Winston several weeks ago in hopes of mating with the males.
The sisters were genetically matched with Safari lions Tsavo and Enzi in June to produce genetically valuable offspring. Rough winter weather delayed transporting the lionesses until spring, Nguyen said.
Keepers hope one of the brothers will mate with the sisters and produce cubs before the end of the year.
The Safari has not had lion cubs for 21 years, Nguyen said.
Tsavo and Enzi have been at the safari for almost a year. They were born to a lioness given to the son of Qatar’s ruling emir as a gift. The cubs’ mother died in childbirth, and the sheik and his family raised the cubs until they could not live inside a family home.
The sheik contacted the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Lion Species Survival Plan to find a home for the cubs.
The cubs were shipped to the Denver Zoo, where they spent six months quarantined to make sure they had no diseases. They were then transferred to Winston, where they arrived June 13 weighing approximately 140 pounds each.
The brothers have grown to approximately 360 pounds each and will continue to gain weight until they each weigh between 450 and 500 pounds.
Keepers are gradually bringing the females closer to the males, but they will not be in the same enclosed area for several weeks.
The lionesses started in a small pen to acclimate to the safari and then moved to a bigger pen.
In approximately three weeks, they will move to a larger enclosure that shares a fence with the main lion enclosure. Several weeks after that, they will move into the enclosure with the males.
The schedule depends on the lions’ personalities and temperament as they move closer together, Nguyen said.
Mtai is more curious and adventurous, while Serafina is shy and hangs back, he said.
Despite their unique personalities, the lions support each other.
“They look to each other for comfort,” Nguyen said.
The lionesses were rejected by their mother and hand-fed by keepers until they were 3 months old, when they returned to the pride. The family structure helped raise the sisters until they were transferred to Winston.
Keepers feed each of the sisters 6 to 7 pounds of raw meat, five days a week.
The lions fast on the other days, as wild lions do not kill and eat every day. Lions begin breeding between the ages of 2 and 3, and often produce cubs until the mother is approximately 9 years old.
Although lions can have cubs as early as 2 years old, it’s often better to wait until they are slightly older to make sure the lion’s body is able to handle offspring, carnivore keeper Jordan Bednarz said.
The dominant male mates with a pride of females, while the other males stand by and help the pride.
It is uncertain which brother will become dominant, Bednarz said.
“It’s still up in air how the whole breeding will work out,” he said.
• You can reach reporter Betsy Swanback at 541-957-4208 or email@example.com.