Zoo’s Lion Cubs Pass Swim Test

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In order for the National Zoo's seven new lion cubs to go on view by the target date of mid-December, the cubs have to be able to paddle and paw their way across the moat that surrounds the lion habitat. On Tuesday, the four eight-week old cubs, the first of two recently-born litters, took their swim test, mostly passing with flying colors.

The four were born at the end of August to the mother lion, Shera. Just three weeks later, Nababiep, Shera's sister, gave birth to a litter of three cubs, bringing the grand total of cubs growing up at the Zoo to seven. The Zoo's male lion, Luke, is the proud father of all of them.

"They did really well. We were thrilled. Everybody swam, and that's the first thing that we expect," says Craig Saffoe, curator of lions, tigers, and yes, bears at the National Zoo.

Saffoe says that swimming is innate for most mammals, including humans. While cats (and lion cubs) don't generally enjoy the water, the Zoo's cubs do have to be able to pull themselves out of the moat in the event that they fall in.

"Typically, when a cat hits the water, they freak out, and they start flailing and throwing water everywhere, and that is not an atypical response," says Saffoe. Several days ago, the zoo keepers exposed the lion cubs to a basin of water to give them a primer on being wet. The cubs did not "freak out," which signaled to the keepers that it was time to plop them in that moat and let them swim.

The first two cubs pulled themselves out of the water without any help from the keepers. The third needed a little help, as he was slightly too short to push off the bottom of the moat with his feet. The fourth cub was a bit errant, and started swimming out into the bigger part of the moat, away from the keepers. "She swam really well," says Saffoe. "My guess is that she just wanted to be as far away from us as she could possibly be. I think she did very well, and I suspect she knows where to go to be safe." All swimmers are well-documented with a slideshow and video on the Zoo's Flickr page.

A lion cub paddles to the edge of the moat in the Great Cats exhibit. Mehgan Murphy, National Zoo.

Zoo keepers have decided to put all seven cubs on view at the same time, which means that Nababiep's cubs, now five weeks old, will have to pass their swim test as well. Keepers will also have to introduce the two separate litters to one another, to be sure they all get along. Finally, all cubs will have to be vaccinated against rabies before going on view, a shot they must be twelve weeks old to receive. So if all goes according to plan, visitors should all be able to see the cubs on view just in time for the holidays.

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