Husbandry & Veterinary
The program’s animal husbandry protocols have been developed over a period of 20 years of working with lions and adapted using the “Guidelines / Specific Concerns for Hand Rearing Carnivores” as prepared by the Zoological Society of San Diego and in light of the ethical guidelines as produced by PAAZAB.
No two sets of cubs follow the same timeline, however, this chronology gives a guideline that is adapted to the individual lion.
Three Weeks Old
It is important that the area around the nursery enclosure be kept quiet so as not to scare the cubs. They will sleep a lot in the first few days and should never be woken if asleep. Avoid quick movements and DO NOT PICK UP unless absolutely necessary to do so using the method described above. Do not wrap them in towels and blankets as they can get too warm which will cause their fur to fall out.
One handler should be assigned to raise the cubs who will act as a surrogate mother. It is from the confidence in their own safety whilst with their “mother” that will enable the cubs to experience their wild environment.
The first attempt at feeding using specially formulated milk should be at 2200h on the day they are removed. They will likely only drink five or 10ml of milk if any at all. If they show no interest at all, leave the cubs for six hours and try again. Continue with a six-hour break between attempts until the cubs start suckling on the teat. It is acceptable to have them try and suck on your finger if it helps get them used to the idea of a teat. This practice must be stopped immediately they start suckling from the bottle.
Marking each young cub with a livestock marker can be done to eliminate confusion until their physical and behavioural differences are apparent, and make record keeping easier and more accurate.
Three to Six Weeks Old
The cubs will start to increase the amount of milk they drink during feeds, and grow rapidly. Milk feeds at 0600h, 1000h, 1400h, 1800h, and 2200h. To start with, they will only drink around 20ml per feed, but this will quickly increase to 75 – 100ml. By six-weeks old, they should regularly and be drinking around 150ml per feed. For the first week, the cubs will eat very slowly; it could take them up to an hour to drink 75ml.
They will drink small amounts at a time, have a rest, and then come back to it. As they get older, they will speed up and what they have not finished after around 20 minutes should be taken away. If they are able to keep coming back, they will learn that they can take their time about it and feeding will become laborious.
The cubs will need to be stimulated to go to the toilet for the first week until they can regularly go on their own. To stimulate a cub to urinate or defecate, rub your finger, or a warm, damp cloth, around the location you want them to excrete from. It can take up to 15 minutes for the desired response. If you get no response after 15 minutes, leave it for an hour and repeat the procedure. At this age they will urinate several times a day and defecate once every two or three days.
During winter when the nights are very cold, you can put a hot water bottle under the bedding in the den for them to sleep on; this will simulate their mother’s body heat. The bottle must be insulated from direct contact with the cubs’ skin as it could easily burn them.
Use warm, damp cloth to wipe the cubs, which will simulate their mother licking them.
Six to Nine Weeks Old
The cubs will now be growing quickly and becoming more social; they will also start to follow the assigned handler around the nursery enclosure. You can begin the first walks with them. They will be easily frightened, but mixing your calls to them between calling “come cubs” and mimicking their own calls, you should find that they follow.
Other guides and handlers should also be introduced to the cubs to simulate the cubs being introduced to the other members of the pride.
Once their front teeth have erupted introduce meat in mince form. Some milk can be added to this to help them with their new diet.
Milk feeds at 0600h, 1000h, 1400h & 2000h. Milk and mince feed at 1800h. As the cubs grow, every time they drink all their milk on each feed for a couple of days, the milk amount should be increased at 25ml intervals. By nine-weeks of age, they will be drinking around 200ml per feed.
The mince content should start with around 125g mixed with 75ml of milk, the meat can be increased if the cubs do not look too “round” after eating, and the milk should be removed after a week.
The cubs will spend less and less time in the den and when they regularly sleep at night outside it can be removed.
Regular checks should be made of any bedding provided to eliminate potential hazards. Strings or small holes in bedding can contribute to serious injury or death from strangulation.
Two to Four Months Old
The cubs should be walking daily now, and still getting plenty of social interaction throughout the day.
At two months old change the feed to milk feeds at 0600h, 1000h and 1800h and meat feed at 1200h. As before, as the cubs regularly drink all of their milk, the amount can be increased up to 300ml per feed.
After the eruption of the back teeth, the mince feed should be replaced with meat, starting with shin meat. The amount of meat a cub should receive per day is roughly the size of the cub’s head. To start with, cut the meat up very small and on each feed increase the size of the meat until they are able to handle whole chunks by learning how to use their dew claw. This may take up to a week to achieve.
The cubs are used to eating meat pieces that are small enough to swallow whole. As they move on to larger pieces of meat it is possible that the cub may choke on it to start with as they try and swallow too much at one time. If this happens, hold the cub with one hand under the chest and firmly slap the cub with an open palm on the side of their chest to release the blockage.
At four-months old change the feed to milk feeds at 0600h and 1800h and meat feed at 1200h.
Five to Seven Months Old
This is a very important time in the cubs’ life. They grow significantly and are becoming increasingly bold. Getting the lions out into the bush as much as possible is vitally important but they also need a lot of discipline to ensure that they do not try to play with people in such a way that could cause injury. During this time, they are also weaned off milk by gradually dropping the milk feeds in their sixth month whilst increasing the meat feed size accordingly.
At six-months old the meat feed should be changed to once every two days and the cubs should be moved out of the nursery enclosure to one located within a wild environment.
At eight-months-old the meat feed should become every three days and the size adjusted accordingly. The feeding schedule should be reviewed regularly as the cub grows, taking into account what animals they kill for themselves.
Throughout the lions’ life it is necessary to provide age appropriate enrichment using natural materials for those times that the lion is in an enclosure and not on walks. Adequate space for exercise and exposure to sunlight are also important.
After the initial bottle adaptation process, carnivores are usually vigorous when nursing from a bottle. If the hole in the nipple is too large they can easily suckle formula too quickly and inhale the milk into the lungs which may result in a serious and often fatal condition called aspiration pneumonia. The hole size should be large enough so as to not cause frustration, but small enough to avoid aspiration.
Always check milk is still ok and warm it through before feeding. Uneaten formula should be discarded. All equipment used in feeding should be thoroughly cleaned.
If you are having trouble getting the teat into the cub’s mouth, slip it in the side of their mouth and move the teat to the front. It is likely they will start drinking once the teat is around the front. As they still have no teeth until around five-weeks old it is all right for them to chew on the teat at this age as this is what they would do on their mother to stimulate the milk. Their back teeth will come through at approx. two months and that is when they need to be taught not to chew by disciplining them when they do; their mother teaches them when they are no longer allowed to chew on her.
Overfeeding is perhaps the most significant risk. The guidelines for determining gastric capacity are 50ml of fluid per kg of body weight. Serious problems can arise when carnivores are over-fed. These include but may not be limited to the formation of excessive gas, diarrhea, vomiting, blood in the stool, gut stasis and painful bloat.
Cubs must be made to sit in front of you with their head raised when feeding. By holding the bottle very firmly at the end you can ensure that the cub stays in one place and avoids you getting clawed if they try to grab the bottle. Hold the bottle at an angle low enough so that the cub does not have to strain its neck up to feed. Some cubs do feed with their head to one side, and this is fine. Never feed a cub lying on its back or when holding it. If the cub moves from the position we want it to feed in, simply pull the bottle away, and hold it in front of the cub at the best position. The cub will soon learn that it has to sit in a certain way to be fed. If the cub starts to sit up too high, simply push the bottle towards them and down. They will move back into the position you want them.
Cubs often hold a paw up and will rest it on your hand or leg. This is fine as it is exactly what they would do on their mother when feeding. Should they bring their claws out however, you should slap the paw and say “no”.
After every feed the cubs’ eyes and face should be wiped down with a warm, damp cloth and then dried. Excess milk or meat on their faces or bodies will cause other cubs to lick them excessively and may result in a loss of fur as well as attracting biting flies.
Veterinary Protocols & Health Prophylaxis
Complete veterinary records are maintained on each individual animal using standardized formats.
These records include microchip numbers and all examinations, procedures and medications given. Records are to be kept for a minimum of five years after the death or transfer of an animal.
- Permanent identification of all lions in the program to be carried out by placing a microchip subcutaneously at the base of the left ear.
- All lions to receive vaccinations (including rabies) according to veterinary recommendations.
- All confined lions to be de-wormed three times a year, alternating the active ingredient at each de-worming.
- All confined lions to have their external parasite burden kept low by regular application of acaricide.
- All lions to have frequent health inspections, with sedated examinations if veterinary problems present. Full diagnostic work-ups (including sending of samples to South Africa when necessary) and veterinary treatment to be given as necessary.
- All confined lions to be fed a dietary supplement (Carnivore Mix) to supplement essential vitamins and minerals which may be deficient in the cuts of meat fed.
- Females not intended for breeding to be spayed.
Protocol for animals destined for release:
- Genetic sampling and screening to plan for inclusion in the release program (i.e. prevent inbreeding).
- Depending on the requirements of the region to which the lions are going, blood screens, and specific disease testing will be carried out where appropriate. Lions may have to be quarantined for 30 days prior to departure from Antelope Park, with blood (or other) tests performed at the beginning of the period.
- Animals to be free of internal and external parasites (de-wormed and an acaricide applied) just prior to transport to new area.
Suitable sizes for enclosures to care for captive African lions (Panthera leo) have been put forward by many governing bodies. Some, such as the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, suggest that as little as 28m2 per animal is sufficient. More liberal suggestions have been put forward as follows:
“Adequate area should be provided for exercise, and as a guide, the formula 1 square metre/kg body weight can be used as a minimum requirement.” Source: D. G. Ashton and D. M. Jones, Veterinary Officer and Senior Veterinary Officer, Zoological Society of London
“Enclosure size for one or two medium animals should be 600 square feet [56 m2] at a minimum. Enclosure size for one large animal weighing over 60 lbs [27kg] should be 1,200 square feet [110 m2] at a minimum. Each additional animal requires an increase of 25% of the original floor space.” Source: Big Cat Rescue’s Exotic Cat Standards,
Most regulatory bodies do not encourage the promulgation of minimum enclosure size regulations as all too often such rulings are taken as the sole criterion for the evaluation of enclosures, and as a result, other requirements for the maintenance of species behavioural integrity are either overlooked or ignored.
A lot of attention is paid to behavioural enrichment in the Program. All enclosures include some form of enrichment for the animals such as trees to climb, for use as a scratching post or to provide shade. Some have dens, ramps or other heavy duty toys designed to withstand play by a lion. Additional stimuli is also regularly provided such as blood and meat frozen in ice blocks for them to lick, or the dung of species found in the Park to sniff and roll in.