Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens
NAPLES — The South African lioness is getting ready for her first date — and it happens to be on Valentine's Day.
She's shed her warm, blonde winter coat for something more appropriate for the Florida heat. She has stayed home for weeks, making sure she is healthy and won't give her date a cold.
Now, her carriage is ready — she just has to get in it to be whisked away to meet her match, the Naples Zoo's South African lion. He's been anxiously awaiting her arrival. He's been lonely, ever since his sister left to go on her own first date.
But don't expect a hot and heavy hook-up at first, said Naples Zoo General Curator Kelly Tetzlaff. The female lion is being moved to an enclosure next to the male lion's, but separated by fencing, so they can try each other out for a few days.
"If you come to the zoo (today), you will probably see the male lion at the back of his enclosure, looking through the fence at the female," she said. "And it may be a bit noisy. But, if all goes well, they should be on exhibit soon. And if it goes really well, we should have cubs."
It's a date that has been years in the making. In the spring of 2009, the zoo welcomed two purebred South African lion cubs, a brother and sister pair who were 8 months old. Although they were born at the NEW Zoo in Wisconsin, the genetics of the lions can be traced directly to southern African populations.
It was only a matter of time before a Species Survival Plan coordinator through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) recommended that one of the cats be sent to another zoo to make room for an unrelated lion to mate with the remaining lion. In January, the lioness was traded with another lioness from Ohio's Akron Zoo.
The new lioness has been in quarantine since arriving from Ohio to ensure she is healthy and to prevent transmission of any disease to the zoo's population.
But the Naples Zoo's South African lion knows there's a new girl in town. Through vocalizations, zoo officials said they know the lions are aware of one another.
Valentine's Day will be the first day the two lay eyes on one another. Tetzlaff said the female lion will be moved from quarantine to the exhibit area. But there will be no touching, yet.
"Once we think their behavior will be good, we will let them in the same area together," she said. "There's a lot riding on whether they will accept one another."
It sounds easy, but it is actually a lot of work. The eventual goal, Tetzlaff said, is that the zoo would have lion cubs one day as part of the zoo's participation in the Species Survival Plan through the AZA, of which the zoo is an accredited member.
"Animals in zoos are bred in captivity in other zoos," Tetzlaff said. "We don't want too many of one animal and we want to keep the gene line clean so the blood lines are as strong as possible. They are trying to figure out what the stable population is in the event of a major catastrophe."
Zoos who participate in the Species Survival Plan breed their animals with chosen mates meant to minimize the loss of genetic diversity and maintain the stability of the population, according to the AZA's website. In addition to animals that can be bred, the AZA also has a list of animals that should not be bred for the betterment of the population or because there are no zoos to accept them.
Last year, as part of the program, the Naples Zoo successfully bred its fosas (pronounced FOO-sas), a catlike mammal from Madagascar. The animals are threatened because of deforestation.
"We wanted to breed them again because it was successful and they want more offspring, but this year we were told not to because they don't have the space for them," Tetzlaff said.
There is no guarantee that the lions' date will lead to something more.
The Naples Zoo had a male and female tiger to breed, but the cats never took to one another. The Species Survival Plan coordinator eventually removed both tigers from the Naples Zoo to place them in different zoos. The Naples Zoo received two male tiger cubs, which are currently in an exhibit area at the front of the zoo.
Tetzlaff said the Naples Zoo will hold the tigers until they are told to send one or both to other zoos so they can mate.
The Naples Zoo also participates in breeding programs for cheetahs, yellow-backed duikers, white-handed gibbons, giraffes, ring-tailed lemurs, ocelots, crested porcupines, siamangs, Malayan tigers, plains zebras and more.