African Lions Take Steps Towards New Social Groups

May 25, 2023

Last month, 7-year-old male African lion, Boma, moved to San Diego Zoo Safari Park after living with his brother, Aslan, for about five years. With Boma leaving for a new social group, African Rift Valley keepers are working to provide Aslan with new social opportunities here at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

Four African lions currently live at CMZoo: the aging parents, Abuto and Lomela, their daughter, Elsa, and their son, Aslan. The long-term plan is for Elsa and Aslan to share space, with interbreeding preventions in place, and for Lomela and Abuto to share space. The introduction plan will be ongoing, so guests may see groups of two or three lions together as the care team works to support the changes in the pride.

Keepers say Aslan is doing well in his brother’s absence, but they have noticed some changes to his behaviors. He has started playing with enrichment more, which he didn’t do as much when he lived with Boma. His brother was more dominant, which meant Aslan didn’t always get as much time with enrichment before Boma began to resource-guard it, as leading lions instinctually do. Their leader/follower relationship also meant Aslan found confidence by following in Boma’s footsteps.

“Maybe Aslan’s new playful behavior and his tendency to be submissive will be a great fit for Elsa, who is fast and loud in every way possible,” said Kelsey Newman, keeper in African Rift Valley. “Elsa loves to pounce, play, wrestle and roar. She seems really excited to see Aslan again, but we want to take things slowly so she doesn’t overwhelm him with her enthusiasm.”

Aslan and Elsa lived together for a couple of years when they were little, and they take turns rotating in and out of spaces at the Zoo. They’re familiar with each other’s scents and sounds. But, they haven’t shared space in around five years. Big cat introductions are always risky, but so far their ‘howdies’ have been positive.

Howdies are opportunities for animals to see, smell and hear each other with a protective barrier between them. For Elsa and Aslan, they’re seeing each other from separate rooms with a 3-foot hallway between their spaces, so they’re not sharing a fence yet. To make howdies and introductions go smoother, keepers will often place a lot of really high-value enrichment items in the area. The intention is to give both parties plenty to do in addition to focusing on each other. For Elsa and Aslan, those items were wooden logs that had been de-barked by the African elephants, mud from the Red River hogs’ habitat, shavings and hay.

“When we invited Aslan and Elsa into their separate howdy rooms, they immediately ran to where they could see each other,” said Newman. “They usually love those smelly enrichment items, but they totally ignored them. Elsa was more intense about it and Aslan took the submissive role, which we expected. It’s still early days, but we’re happy with how it’s going so far.”

After a little while together, Aslan went outside in his side yard and took a nap. He was heard making what keepers call ‘baby noises’ or little chirps and chuffs to his sister. Elsa returned to her parents, where she playfully head-bumped Lomela then rolled over to pull on her dad, Abuto’s, mane.

Before taking next steps, keepers want to see calmer behaviors between the two lions. Experience tells them that the more the two see each other, the less they’ll react to each other. Once energy levels are appropriate, the siblings will continue howdies with a fence between them, and move on from there.

“We know these lions,” said Newman. “They know their habitats, and they know how to communicate with their keepers, so we can respond quickly if we see signs of discomfort. They’re aware of and familiar with each other. We feel confident in the decisions we’re making, and we’ll continue listening to the lions to set them up for the best chance at this ideal social setup for the whole group.”

While howdies and introductions continue, guests might notice post-excitement behaviors, like pacing or panting. Keepers are monitoring the lions extra closely to ensure they’re comfortable and confident as they rekindle their close sibling relationship.

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