With elegant grace, 10-year-old Abuto walks through his exhibit at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and heads for the stuffed hard-boiled eggs inside an enrichment toy.
The magnificent mane of the African lion would even make the Breck Girl envious. And thank you, there’s a solid barrier between you and this 519-pound cat.
“You look at him and think wow, such a beautiful and amazing animal, and then you work with him and realize he’s just a big jerk,” said Amy Schilz, African Rift Valley Senior Warden. “He loves interacting with people and he’s really good at learning behaviors. I love it. He’s my work husband.
His 6-year-old daughter Elsa follows in his footsteps on this sunny morning, a vivacious and playful girl who loves her daddy and expresses that affection as any little girl might – by stalking her daddy and jumping on him.
“She’ll hide behind things that aren’t really big enough to hide a lion, but she thinks as long as her eyes are covered and she can’t see them, they can’t see her,” Schilz said. . “She will hide behind a 6 inch boomer ball. Girlfriend, you weigh 300 pounds.
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Mama cat Lomela is slower to enter the exhibit and monitors the environment to make sure everything is in place before moving on – typical for the 14-year-old, 327-pound lady.
“Abuto is like, ‘Hey, be my friend,’ to all the humans on the planet,” Schilz said. “Lomela knows who everyone is and can identify them, whether they’re in their work clothes or walking around the zoo with their families. She’s very kind. She is much slower than the other lions.
Abuto loves visitors so much that he enjoys giving them a gift – urinating near them as they watch him through the barrier.
“He does it on purpose,” Schilz said.
The giant cat also lives for public adulation. During cat shows for visitors, he has been known to jump on the Cape buffalo statue in their yard and preen for a few extra minutes, even if the keepers tell him “good” which means good job, come get yourselves pleasure. But no, he has not finished soaking up the cheers of the crowd.
“You could see him standing up straight and posing more. He’s hilarious,” his work wife said.
But even though he’s the king of the world in his mind, the social dynamics are a bit upside down in this little pride. Elsa rules the roost, when it really should be Abuto by nature.
“Elsa is definitely everybody’s boss,” Schilz said. “She takes what she wants when she wants it. The other two are like OK, because no one wants to fight her.
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The cat family
Abuto arrived from Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Arizona in 2013 to make babies with Lomela. It worked. Elsa isn’t their only offspring. They are also parents to 6-year-old sons Boma and Aslan, but the brothers are no longer part of the family unit. They had to be removed from the ladies around the two year mark and given them their own space – the law of nature at work, even in captivity.
In the wild, male lions are driven out of their pride at around 18 months to avoid inbreeding. Females, including mothers, aunts, sisters, and grandmothers, live in a maternal group. One or two males exist in the pride and breed with the ladies for a year or two until younger, stronger, larger males fight them for control of the pride. The losers go out alone.
“They have a difficult life in the wild. They usually live between seven and 12 years old,” Schilz said. In captivity, they can live up to nearly 17 years.
let’s make some noise
Abuto greets the keepers in the morning by rubbing his face against the net and making his happy noises – low growls. Lions make hundreds of sounds including chirps, baby calls and growls when in estrus, a fertile time. Here in the United States, they say a lion roars. But in Africa, people will say that a happy lion says beef. “Booooof, boof, boof, boof,” Schilz mimics.
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The most popular starter, unsurprisingly, is the meat. Mainly a meat product specially designed for big cats and shipped from Canada, as well as chicken, turkey and other carcasses.
Bloodsicles (leftover meat blood frozen into treats) or frozen canned cat food will also attract favor from lions. And if you’re particularly looking to make friends or get Abuto to wag his tail at a port for blood draws and blood pressure checks, a can of Reddi-wip has them running.
fate of lions
The wild lion population has declined by 43% over the past two decades, and it is said that they could become extinct within the next 20 years. Their deaths are often due to conflict between herders and lions, something that Ewaso Lions, one of the zoo’s conservation partners in Kenya, is working to change. The group educates and trains communities on conservation practices that help people and wildlife.
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