Woo at the Zoo Preview: Lions and Cheetahs, Up Close and Personal

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This Friday night, in anticipation of Valentine's Day, the National Zoo will be hosting its third annual "Woo at the Zoo." The event promises frisky talks on the sexual behaviors of animals by some of the zoo's experts, including Craig Saffoe, acting curator of the Zoo's Great Cats. This past fall, the Zoo's lion pride expanded by seven cubs when the two lionesses, Shera and Naba, each gave birth to litters. I recently spoke with Saffoe, who oversaw the breeding and births.

What is a lion's social life like in the wild?

Lions have an interesting social structure for cats because they are the only completely social cat, meaning that both sexes live together. You have a semi-social species in cheetahs, where males live together and females are solitary. But then for every other cat that we know of, both sexes are solitary. So, lions are unique in that even within the sense of being social, they're social with their own pride. Males are transient. They go in and out of the prides. It's not like you have one family that stays together forever. The females run the show. They run the pride, and the males come in, according to whether the females let them in or not, and then they go out when they are ousted by other males.

So, what does your job, as a matchmaker for the zoo's lions, involve?

My job is to maintain a level of safety, of course, with managing the cats and making decisions on when it is appropriate to put them together and when it's not. So I have the job of deciding when it's time to open the gate between two cats and let them together. It gets kind of tense, because if I'm right, it's great. If I'm wrong, somebody dies. Our male lion Luke got beat up the first couple times we put him in the enclosure with a female.

What are some interesting facts about the way lions choose mates and raise cubs?

I think mate selection is really interesting among all different species. But cats, I think, display mate selection pretty obviously. Most people assume that males are doing the selecting for mate choice. I believe differently, based on my experiences. I think it's almost exclusively the females who select which mates. Males are pretty indiscriminant when it comes to breeding. They'll breed just about anything that walks around.

I think what people end up seeing is that the males often come off looking dominant. Because of the mechanics of quadriped breeding, it looks like the male is dominating the whole experience. In reality, there is a reason that he is biting that girl's neck, and it's because if she doesn't like what he's doing, she's going to turn around and kill him.

What have been the biggest surprises of the whole experience?

The biggest surprise for me has been the differences in the maternal behavior of lions and cheetahs. The cheetahs that I have dealt with in the past have been extremely protective moms. We've had a hard time managing them after they gave birth, in the sense of trying to get them away from their cubs. They were very reluctant to do so. The lions, on the other hand, almost couldn't wait to go out the door. As soon as we opened the door to get them away from their cubs, they were gone. I think that you can easily link that back to them being so social. I'm sure that they are not concerned that anybody would dare touch their cubs, whereas a cheetah is always on guard that something is going to come up and try to harm their cubs.

I watched a video made after the cubs were born. In it, you said, "Only a handful of people on the planet have seen the things we are seeing." Can you share some of those moments?

I come to work every day and stand five feet from lions and tigers. That in and of itself is something that not many people get the chance to do. This job is pretty unique in that sense. As an animal manager, I look to manage my adults so that they can take care of themselves and then take care of their own. So being able to just sit back and watch. . . You're not going to get that chance many times. Sure, other zoos have bred lions. We're not the first, nor will we be the last. But the number of people on this planet who have actually seen that kind of stuff is very small, so I feel like I'm a member of a pretty exclusive fraternity now.

Are there any other animals at the zoo that you find particularly interesting when it comes to mating behavior?

I think mating behaviors of animals in general, humans included, are really odd, and really cool when you get down to it. If you talk about birds and how the males often have brightly-colored plumage to attract the females—I think that's phenomenal. When you talk about invertebrates, like starfish—how in the world do they even mate? What in the world do they do? Then, when you get into what my bosses call the charismatic mega-vertebrate mammals, you start to wonder, how do they do it without killing each other? And with humans, you just wonder, what in the world? What makes any of us choose our mates?

I think animal mating, while it's very funny, is just a really interesting topic to talk about and one that people often shy away from because, oh, it's taboo. But it's pretty vital. It's the very crux of existence.

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