At Burgers’ Zoo, we prefer animals to raise their young without zookeepers’ intervention. Young animals learn vital skills from their mothers and—depending on the species—their fathers. In certain species, the father actually plays a more important role in this respect. Older siblings may also assist in the process; in some cases, the whole group is involved in forming the young into fully-fledged group members. Animals raised by humans lack these essential, species-specific skills as they grow up, making it difficult to reintroduce them to their conspecifics later. In some cases, there are very important reasons for hand-rearing a young animal. This time: the lion.
We can’t imagine it nowadays, but in the 1960s and 1970s, it was normal to hand-rear several litters of lion cubs at our zoo. Often more than one litter at a time. Burgers’ Zoo was known throughout Europe and beyond for its lions and successful lion breeding. On any given day, dozens of lions could be admired during a visit to the Arnhem zoo. In 1968, Burgers’ Lion Park was opened, which soon expanded to become Burgers’ Safari Park in 1969 with the arrival of giraffes, zebras, antelopes and ostriches, among others. The downside of this enormous success, and the fact that other zoos had not yet mastered the breeding of lions, was that at a certain point, practically all lions in Europe and North America could be genetically traced back to Arnhem. Even the famous roaring lion of MGM Studios (Hollywood, USA) had Arnhem blood running through its veins as one of its parents came from our zoo.
Today, zoos are in a luxury position when it comes to lions. If we allowed the breeding to go unchecked, there would be more lions than there are places available at European zoos. Therefore, contraceptives are frequently used, both temporary (e.g. hormonal shot) and permanent (e.g. sterilisation or castration). In the past, Burgers’ Zoo was one of the few parks with a good understanding of how to breed lions successfully. A pregnant lioness must have a space where she feels completely safe and can retreat in peace without being disturbed by people or conspecifics. In the wild, a high-powered lioness also isolates herself to find a safe place where she can give birth to her cubs in shelter and security. Burgers’ Zoo created such safe stalls for the lionesses with great success!
Zookeepers regularly assisted in raising young cubs by bottle feeding if the mother had rejected the cubs, for example. Dogs were also used as surrogate mothers, which at one point led to the curious sight of the dog telling off the lion cubs, who by then were twice as big as their “mother”, with a barking command. The young lion cubs did not know better than that the dog was their mother.
Nowadays, we know much more about the natural behaviour of lions and the importance of the life lessons they learn from their mothers and other pride members. Moreover, we now share our expertise in successful lion breeding directly with our fellow zoos. After all, the greatest possible genetic variation is important for the future of the zoo’s lion population.
Bottle-reared lions become more accustomed to humans than is desirable and can even become somewhat tame, especially if there is intensive human contact and the animals are stroked frequently. Yet, perhaps even more important is that hand-reared lions miss valuable life lessons from their mother and may not understand lion communication properly, making it difficult to introduce such a hand-reared animal into an existing, natural group of lions as a young adult lion.
Burgers’ Zoo has a philosophy of keeping animals as natural as possible. If the cubs are healthy and grow up to be healthy, they are never handled by the zookeepers. This does mean that when they are transported to another zoo, they must be put under general anaesthetic by the veterinarian before they can go into the transport crate. But we prefer our lions this way, displaying natural behaviour and not used to people. We much rather have them pay attention to their own kind and environment, just as they would in the wild!
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