COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Two new African female lions have just recently been put on exhibit, but you may be surprised to learn they've actually been at the zoo for the past seven weeks.
It was just this February that the zoo's beloved female lion 16-year-old Brynn passed away after getting sick. She was right at the median life expectancy for African lions, and a necropsy showed she had an inflamed gull bladder and pancreas.
Her passing left her male companion of 10 years, Zuri, without a mate and with a broken heart. That's why staff made it a priority to find him new companions, and they had to do it quickly.
"Lions are social animals, and they depend on one another," said John Davis, Curator of Mammals at Riverbanks. "Zuri and Brynn had a very, very strong bond with one another."
It's a bond that led to the births of four lion cubs at Riverbanks back in 2008. As part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP), the cubs were eventually sent to Greenville Zoo and Dallas Zoo meaning after Brynn's recent death, 12 year-old Zuri was left alone.
"The first couple weeks he called for her," said Davis. "It was hard for all of us to watch. But the keepers really stepped it up and we made a lot of adjustments to his enrichment schedule...but it was also priority for us to acquire new lions."
As part of the SSP, two female lions from Fort Worth Zoo were chosen for Riverbanks.
"Zuri is highly ranked within the captive population," Davis said. "The SSP wants him to breed again so that helped us out not only in finding a companion animal for him but also in the hopes that down the road we would be able to acquire more females for breeding."
That's what ultimately led to the arrival of two-year-old females Thebisa and Lindelani. The sisters were in quarantine and had several medical evaluations at Riverbanks over the last few weeks which is standard for new arrivals. Zuri has not met them yet.
"Part of this is now is we are learning about them and they're learning about us," said Davis. "So we are exposing them to certain situations and introducing them to the exhibit which is a really big step for them and for us."
In fact, the video above is of their first experience exploring their new exhibit. Davis says it's taken 7 weeks for this introduction to their habitat because keepers say they always work at the animals pace.
"When we introduce animals to the exhibit it is their choice," said Davis. "We don't make them come out, they came out because they wanted to...we keep all the doors open and allow them to come and go as they wish right now."
Comforting to staff, the sisters seem at ease in their new home.
"These girls are little bit shy as far as lions go, so we thought maybe they won't go outside at all," said Jessica Kinzer, the senior mammal keeper for the cat and bear area at Riverbanks. "But they were confident and calm and really explored the whole exhibit, so I think they did great."
Keepers say expect to see the sisters out on exhibit, but don't expect to see them alongside Zuri just yet.
"We don't necessarily know that they're going to like each other right away. There could be a little bit of anxiety or a little fear," said Davis. "All three come from social backgrounds, and we feel confident if we move at the right pace will set them up for success but we certainly don't rush that process."
WIS will be following that introduction process for Zuri, Lindelani and Thebisa. As staff take the steps to get all three formally introduced you can expect to see the sisters on exhibit together, or Zuri out on exhibit, but you won't see all three out at the same time just yet.
Tune in to WIS tonight at 6 p.m. to see this full story in our latest edition of Beyond the Banks.