Animals & FAQs
At the Sacramento Zoo, it’s all about the animals! More than 500 native, rare and endangered animals call our zoo home. Representing more than 120 unique species, the animals at the Sacramento Zoo are sure to amaze and inspire visitors of all ages around the globe. Through SAFE, AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums will convene scientists and stakeholders globally to identify the factors threatening species, develop Conservation Action Plans, collect new resources and engage the public.
Explore all the species at the Sacramento Zoo by browsing the animal page. You’ll find conservation status, in depth fact sheets, photos, videos and animal profiles.
Letter from the Zoo Director
RE: African Lion Cubs
We at the Sacramento Zoo never stop working to provide the best care possible for our animals. Our staff are active leaders in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), an organization that not only establishes standards for the well-being of zoo animals, but also ensures that those standards are met through a stringent accreditation process. The Sacramento Zoo is one of only 228 zoos in the United States to meet those standards. We strive every day to push ourselves to provide exceptional care for our animals, and constantly challenge ourselves to do better.
We also want you to know that we listen to you and take your questions and concerns seriously.
In October 2014, a lot of hard work by zoo staff and our colleagues around the country paid off with the birth of our three lion cubs. Since their birth hundreds of thousands of you have come to see them grow and play and behave the way young lions do. They are a great example of why zoos are such special places.
As pleased as we are with how well the cubs are doing, and the excellent care they are receiving from both of their parents and our staff, we have had to ask ourselves some hard questions as they have grown. Some of you have asked some of the same questions, too: things like “Is the lion exhibit large enough?” and “Can’t the lion exhibit be expanded?”
My team has worked together and with colleagues at other zoos to answer your questions, and we wanted to share the facts and our efforts with you directly. Soon we will begin work to outline a new long-range plan for our zoo, charting the course for the next version of your Sacramento Zoo, and questions like these help guide our thinking.
At the Sacramento Zoo, we will strive to provide uncompromising care for our animals, and work to conserve species and habitats around the world. As we do, we will also make sure to listen to you and be active in addressing your questions and concerns. Below you will find a lot of great information we have put together based on your feedback and questions.
Thank you for your support of our zoo.
Kyle Burks, PhD
The Sacramento Zoo’s African Lion exhibit was built in the late 1970’s and then renovated in the early 1990’s. It is now approximately 3,000 square feet (54 feet long by 57 feet deep). There is also an additional off-exhibit outdoor area as well as inside dens.
While the Sacramento Zoo’s lion pride would utilize more space, their social structure allows for comfortable living in smaller spaces than other large cats.
We are dedicated to the highest standards of welfare for all of our animals and are analyzing options for increasing the size of our lion’s habitat. While determining the feasibility of those options we are constantly looking for ways to improve their current space in a safe and reasonable way. Presently, we are researching climbing platforms or more rock work that would increase vertical space for perching and give them more terrain to utilize.
As we consider an expansion of the exhibit, there are a lot of factors that we would have to address. Expansion of the outdoor exhibit area may not be possible without significant renovation to the entire building. Any large building renovation would require us to find a space to house the lions during construction. Any expansion project to the outdoor exhibit area would also impact the other animals housed in this area, since the lions have neighbors on both sides: Sumatran tigers and giant anteaters. Within the run of exhibits in that area there is a closed exhibit between giant anteaters and snow leopards. This space would require major renovation in order to exhibit the neighboring anteaters. The resulting vacant anteater exhibit would then require extensive and significant modifications to safely contain the lions, including but not limited to, containment mesh, increased wall height and new animal access doors. All of the details that go into major renovations like these will be a large part of our discussion as we develop a new long-term plan for our zoo, and consider how to improve the habitats for all of our animals, including our lions.
As zoo professionals have dedicated our time and resources to better manage species, zoos have changed dramatically. Historically, lions have been kept in pairs, as many species were.
As zoos have become better with managing species to encourage natural behaviors, the requirements of our facilities have changed as well. Necessary changes include renovations of exhibit space, diet changes, complex enrichment and a focus group dynamics/size. What this means for the 14-acre Sacramento zoo is that in the long term we may not house a pride of lions. This is the same difficult decision the zoo made with other large mammals that the zoo used to house, such as hippos and elephants. Sometimes it is not the animal’s size alone that leads us to the decision to phase out an animal program, but also the species’ social needs. As active, accredited members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the Sacramento Zoo has both a voice in establishing the highest standards for caring for zoo animals and a responsibility to diligently seek to exceed those standards.
The male cub is named Demarcus and the females are Inara and Saphira. The names were chosen by the primary carnivore keepers that work with and care for the lions on a daily basis.
As part of the AZA, the Sacramento Zoo participates in the Lion Species Survival Plan® (SSP) Program. In addition to coordinating all of the breeding efforts for lions in North American zoos, the Lion SSP works to increase awareness of the problems that face this big cat. The Sacramento Zoo bred our lions as part of the African Lion SSP’s overall program efforts and we have continued to work with them after the cubs were born. While there is no definitive schedule on when any of the cubs will leave the Sacramento Zoo, the Lion SSP will recommend an AZA zoo or zoos as a home over the next few months to year. After that, the Sacramento Zoo will probably not breed these lions again.
For any young animal, we strive to keep them in their family groups for the appropriate amount of time needed to learn the skills they would require to take care of themselves once they have matured. In the wild, after male cubs age, they would not be tolerated by the rest of the group. They would then move out of their family group, forming bachelor groups until they create or join a pride as a breeding male. Female cubs tend to stay in their natal pride or move with sisters to another pride. That female bond is very strong.
Although lions leaving their group and joining another pride can be complicated, the fact that these three cubs are growing up in the natal group and learning all that is required to be part of a lion pride sets them up for success in the future as we continue to work with the Lion SSP Program to find the best homes for them as they grow.
The lions are given a variety of stimuli, as well as plenty of time to do what lions would naturally do, to keep them from being bored. While the lions have never experienced anything other than living in a zoo, being born in captivity does not change lion behavior dramatically. Lions in captivity and in the wild patrol their territory and call out (roar) to other lion groups, announcing their location. Also, it is important to note that lions, like other cats, can spend up to 20 hours a day sleeping and conserving energy. Our lions do all of these things.
The Sacramento Zoo’s animal care staff is constantly monitoring the needs of the animals under their care. They spend a lot of time with the animals on a daily basis, helping them focus on species needs, individual needs and any subtle changes in behavior.
With that in mind, all of the animals at the zoo are given enrichment. Enrichment is an item or activity that is not part of the “routine” of an animal’s day. It is something used to get them up and active, encourage natural behaviors that you would see out in the wild, stretch their cognitive abilities, and simply to give the animals something new and stimulating to do. One of the things keepers do specifically with the lions is to engage them in positive reinforcement training. These trained behaviors are voluntary for the animal and are always done through protected contact (meaning the keeper and the lion are never in the same space and always have a barrier between them). These behaviors are for husbandry and medical purposes. Examples of behaviors are:
- Open mouth, placing paws in specific locations
- Getting on a scale
- Sitting in place
- Voluntary injections for immobilization’s (used for an annual veterinary exam.)
Giving enrichment to a group can be very tricky depending on the species. All of the characteristics that make a lion a lion, as well as individual personalities, have to be taken into consideration when deciding what to give to or do with the lions. Enrichment can be as easy as placing a log in the exhibit as a new scratch toy for marking, hiding snacks around the exhibit, or giving boxes filled with enticing scents.
A lot of things go into making sure that the lions’ needs are met at the Sacramento Zoo. One of the first needs checked daily is making sure the exhibit is safe for the animals and safe for people. This includes checking fencing, walls and any overhangs for proper containment. The zoo also has a full-time staff in our Maintenance Department that can weld and/or repair the exhibit and holding spaces to ensure the safety of the animals, staff and visitors.
The Sacramento Zoo’s lions are fed once per day in the morning. Zookeepers call them into their dens to eat. While the lions are eating, zookeepers secure the lions inside for safety so that the keepers can clean and service the exhibit and place enrichment. The lions are then let out into exhibit until around 3 pm, at which time they are given access to both the indoor dens and outside exhibit. In fact, for 18 out of 24 hours, the lion group has access to dens and behind-the-scenes areas.
The lions are fed a quality beef-based diet as well as beef bones. They also receive Mazuri ™ brand large carnivore chow (a dry kibble) to help promote healthy teeth, enrichment and nutrition. They also receive daily enrichment in a variety of forms such as exhibit furniture, spices and scents, boxes to rip up, balls, and hay or other types of bedding. Enrichment also includes training for husbandry purposes that not only engage them but also helps the zoo care for their well-being while reducing potential stress.
The Sacramento Zoo is proactive when it comes to health of all the animals at the zoo. Zookeepers monitor the animals’ well-being, and the animals receive regular visual checkups by veterinary staff. The lions also receive annual exams by the zoo’s veterinary team. The exams are completed with the lions under anesthesia for the safety and comfort of all. During the exams, blood is drawn, vaccinations are given, weight is checked, overall body condition is checked, the animal’s transponder (similar to a microchip) is checked and radiographs are taken. If necessary, they also receive an ultrasound and any special tests dictated by the individual’s needs.
When caring for all of the animals at the zoo, including the lions, the zoo has a wealth of knowledge and professionals to draw from. In maintaining accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, not only is the Sacramento Zoo held to standards and guidelines that surpass those set by the USDA, but keepers and staff also have access to the zoos within the AZA network. These standards include everything that goes into running a zoo including a high standard of overall care, facilities maintenance and size, guest experience and a commitment to conservation.
General Lion Dynamics
Lions live in tightly-knit groups which promote living in close proximity with each other. Lions are the only large cat that lives in groups. Females in the pride collect their youngsters together forming a “crèche” – multiple females taking care of multiple litters of cubs. Therefore, many youngsters for the first few years live in very close proximity. Species that live in large groups have a lot to teach their offspring – young males need to learn what it is to be a male and how to interact with females. Female cubs need to learn how to work as a group with other females and how to interact with males. It takes years to learn these behaviors. These behaviors are essential for young lions to integrate into a pride of their own. For all other cat species, the sire would not be part of the cub’s life.
Lions are spectacularly sociable: they hunt together, raise their cubs in nursery groups and defend joint territories. The traditional explanation for lion sociality has been cooperative hunting. But recent studies show that it is much more: possessing a high quality territory is essential for successful reproduction, and as a pride grows it is able to annex particularly valuable landscape features in its habitat. This is best accomplished when animals band together.
Lions usually spend 16 to 20 hours a day sleeping and resting while devoting the remaining hours to hunting, courting and protecting their territory. They protect their territory and keep in contact with one another by roaring loud enough to be heard up to five miles away. African lions are excellent hunters. Although they are mostly nocturnal, they are opportunistic and will hunt anytime, day or night. Females do 85 to 90 percent of the pride’s hunting, while the males patrol the territory and protect the pride.
Sacramento Zoo’s Lions
When the cubs were born the mother was separated from the father until staff felt confident that the cubs were doing well with their first-time mother. The male was then introduced. From that point forward it has been important to keep the group together. When one individual needs to be checked by the veterinarian, the process of reintroducing the group back together is carefully planned out by keepers and veterinary staff. These animals may be in captivity, but they are wild animals and act accordingly. Therefore any separation and reintroduction must be discussed ahead of time and closely monitored.
Often we view cats as all being the same (like our domestic house cat) making it difficult to appreciate lions and their innate desire to be close together. We can easily appreciate a troop of baboons, a flock of parrots or a group of highly social chimps. But to think of cats wanting to be together is not what comes to mind first. This closeness is demonstrated with the zoo’s lions. For example, when the group is shifted outside or inside, the pride members look out for one another – the adult male waiting for all the group members at the door, the adult female keeping her eye on her young. The male cub keeps close proximity with his father and the females pay close attention to their mother.
UPDATE April 2016
The lion youngsters are a year-and-a-half old and to accommodate the changing social dynamics of the Sacramento Zoo’s lion pride, guests may see various groupings of the lions at different times. Currently, on a typical day you will see the adult male and female on exhibit earlier in the day and the cubs with mom after 3 pm. However, you may also see other combinations of the lion family depending upon their needs on any particular day.
The Sacramento Zoo is a nonprofit with a mission to inspire appreciation, respect and a connection with wildlife and nature through education, recreation and conservation. We take the care of our animals and your questions seriously. If you have questions or concerns, please email us.