COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Slowly but surely work continues to introduce two new female lions to Riverbanks Zoo's beloved male lion Zuri. Anytime a new animal is brought to Riverbanks to live with existing animals there is always a process of introduction.
The length and intensity of that process depend on each animal, but Riverbanks keepers say there is no process more delicate than introducing lions to one another as they form a new pride.
"These are apex predators and they are large dangerous animals," said John Davis, curator of mammals at Riverbanks. "They are powerful, and they have canine teeth."
Because of that keepers say whether it's at Riverbanks or in the wild, any lion meeting is a delicate one. It's a process that can take months.
"Even if they're just caught off guard, their responses are very quick, and it can result in injury and those are the things we want to be most protective of," Davis said.
That's why a physical meeting between females Thebisa and Lindelani and male lion Zuri is still ways off. But it's been eight weeks since the female lions have arrived at Riverbanks, and keepers say now that they've adjusted well to their habitat, the process of introducing them to male lion Zuri has begun.
"Visual olfactory introduction," Davis said. "They can see and smell each other at times, there are times in the morning where it's supervised and we allow the animals to have quick visuals at a distance."
Keepers say that lasts for about 30 minutes in the morning and at night. While the lions are not allowed to get close yet, male Zuri is eager to meet the ladies.
"He can sense that they're on the other side of the door- whether he can hear them or smell them," said Jessica Kinzer, the senior mammal keeper for the cat and bear area at Riverbanks. "He just kind of hangs out, and is like, 'Is anybody going to open the door? Let me over!' He's ready."
Keepers say Zuri has even called out for the females.
"He knows they're here and as a male would do, he will start to call and vocalize and mark his territory and make his presence known to them," Davis said. "So vocalizations have increased since they arrived."
As visual introductions have progressed, keepers say tactile introductions are next.
"They still can't touch yet but we allow the animals to get close or bring them closer to one another but maintain them through a barrier," Davis said.
Keepers say this process will let them know how the lions may respond to each other.
"We actually have this back up well-designed so we can protect the animals through some of this introduction process and we can control the anxiety and some of their moods," Davis said.
As they study their reactions, they'll decide when to move forward with nose-to-nose physical introductions.
"If there's one animal that's more aggressive and one that's more submissive we can actually call a break and allow them to regroup and help build the confidence of each individual to lead toward the success of this introduction," Davis said.
While it has not happened at Riverbanks Zoo to date, in some cases, animal introductions have proved to be fatal at other facilities and in the wild which again is why the process is so intricate.
Animal and keeper safety are number one priorities for the entire staff at Riverbanks and keepers maintain they will continue to move at the lions' pace to ensure the best outcomes possible.