It’s been nearly a decade since the roar of a lion has been heard in the foothills of Salt Lake City. That all changed last month when the new African Savannah exhibit at Utah’s Hogle Zoo opened, and a pair of 3-year-old males, Baron and Vulcan, made their debut. A few days later, two lionesses, Seyla and Nabu, were given their turn to explore.
For now the males and females will be kept separate and rotate in the main yard. The females, who were born in November 2012, are still too young to join the males. According to their keepers, Tonya Matelski and Valerie Schubert, the sisters will be ready to form a pride with Vulcan and Baron when they’re close to adulthood — around age 2.
Last week Matelski and Schubert answered questions about lions that were submitted to the Deseret News by kids ages 4-13.
Does it (the lion at the zoo) roar? - Aidan, 5
Yes. You can hear it from five miles away. As they get more comfortable with their environment, they are roaring more.
Do lions purr or like to be petted and sit in boxes or be told they are pretty? - Cleo, 8
The definition of a large cat is one that doesn’t purr. So if you can roar you can’t purr, and if you purr you don’t roar. The biggest cat that can purr is the mountain lion or cheetah.
We do tell them that (they are pretty). They don’t like to be touched or petted. They will be affectionate with each other. But the most they will give us is sitting here, showing that they like to be near us. Boxes, sure; they like to play with them.
What do the lions in the zoo eat? - Ruby, 5
They are strict carnivores. So they are on an all-meat diet. They get pieces of raw steak and different kinds of (animal) organs.
What is the biggest prey that a lion eats? - Hailee, 8
They can specialize in hunting elephants. It isn’t common, but lions that know what they are doing can take down an elephant or giraffe. More common is a zebra or wildebeest.
What do they get for treats? - Katy, 11
Bones are the most treasured possession they can get, which is really good for them because it helps clean their teeth.
Do you ever brush their teeth? - Sydney, 7
No. The bones really do that for us and help maintain their teeth and gum health.
Do lions have to see a dentist for their big teeth? - Rebekah, 9
Yes, they do. Our veterinarians here are able to do any dental work on them. They can do a root canal or anything they might need.
How old do they get? - Kaycee, 11
An average of 20 years in captivity. In the wild half that — maybe 16.
How long are lions pregnant? - Elijah, 4
Gestation for a lion lasts four months — 110 days.
How many babies can a lion have at one time? Do they live together in a family? - Rebekah, 9
An average of 2-4, but anywhere up to 1-7.
Males get kicked out of the pride about age 2.
Do lions have a leader? - Rebekah, 9
They will have a more dominant male, but the males all play a role in the pride. So there isn’t just one male that will breed or protect.
How much do the biggest lions weigh? - Hailee, 8
Up to 550 pounds. They are the second-largest cat, only beaten in size by the Amur Tiger.
Why do they have manes? - Taylor, 10
It is a sexual dimorphism (difference between males and females). So you can tell the males from the females. Males have manes. The males are huge protectors and fight with each other, and manes can protect their necks. But also it is a very good indication to females how healthy they are. How valuable they are as mates.
No other big cats have that? - Zion, 11
Lions are the only cat that has a mane.
How thick does the male’s mane grow? - Ethan, 9
I couldn’t give you an answer, but you couldn’t get your fingers through it. It covers from the top of their head and will eventually go down the middle of their back. It also depends on nutrition. The better their diet, the longer and thicker the mane.
Do lions swim? - Clive, 5
They can; they aren’t fans. But there are specialized groups of lions that will hunt in the water.
Are they friends with the elephants? - Logan, 4
What is the fastest speed? - Ethan, 9
They can run at bursts up to 55 mph, but for a very short period of time. Cheetahs can run up to 70 mph and for a longer period of time.
Do male lions hunt or just the females? - Leif, 9
Males can hunt, but females do most of the hunting because they are smaller and more agile animals. The males are built more for fighting. Their job is so difficult in the wild — that constant protection of their territory — that the males will always eat first. They live half as long as females in the wild.
Do they need mates to survive? - Ellie, 11
To survive, males need females to feed them. They can survive on their own, but really the whole pride is what helps them.
Does the lion attack people from the zoo or try to? - Sydney, 7
Probably. These cats are extremely territorial. So if they have any indication that you are imposing on their territory, they will defend.
Why do people kill them? - Cleo, 8 and Allan, 6
It is a huge problem. Tribes have their livestock, and lions can take down their livestock or they will blame lions for killing their livestock. So to fix that they will kill the lions. They think of them as pests.
Some lion parts, like organs, are valuable. Also for a lot of tribes in Africa, it is a right of passage to kill a lion. At this point in time, lions in the north are extinct, and there are only five sustainable populations of lions in Africa.
Hogle Zoo works with an conservation organization, Niassa Carnivore Project, that promotes coexistence with lions in the wild. The organization is located in the Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique, Africa. For more information on the project and its accomplishments, visit niassalion.org.
Matelski and Schubert are the primary lion keepers. Matelski says she loves it at Hogle and has worked with lions for 10 years, first at a rescue facility in Arkansas and then at Memphis Zoo. Schubert previously worked with lions at the Wildlife Safari in Oregon for nearly six years.