Pride Matters

Lions at the Safari Park and Zoo

Lions have always been a regal presence and a matter of pride at San Diego Zoo Global. From the roar of a lion in 1916 that gave our founder, Dr. Harry Wegeforth, the idea of creating a zoo in San Diego, to the efforts and expertise our animal care staff share with communities that live with these cats in their natural habitat, lions are a big part of our organization’s story. That ongoing commitment comes roaring through loud and clear when you ask our keepers: “Tell me about the lions.”

BY Wendy Perkins

Photography by Ken Bohn

One of the thrills of the Park’s Roar & Snore sleepover programs is hearing Izu (and the other lions) sound off in the evening and morning. Click here and learn how to experience it yourself.

The Park cats

In 2005, a lush, grassy habitat called the Sylvia G. Straton Lion Camp welcomed its first felines—a group of rambunctious one-year-olds. As they grew to maturity, the entourage changed, which would also take place in the wild. Based on breeding recommendations from the Species Survival Plan, some moved to new homes, while three of the cats, Izu, Mina, and Oshana, remained at the Safari Park. They continue to impress Park visitors with their strength, agility, and beauty—and together they have produced 6 litters, totaling 18 cubs.

Izu is the reigning male of Lion Camp, an imposing-looking fellow with an aloofness that belies a big heart. “He’s really quite mellow,” said Alex Duran, a senior keeper at the Park. “He is also one of the best dads I’ve seen. Of course, he has to be stern with the cubs, but he puts up with their playfulness and engages with them so gently.”

When it comes to the keepers, “Izu tries to play it cool when we come in, but sometimes his soft side shows, and he rubs his mane against the mesh to solicit affection from us,” said Alex. The keepers work with the lions through protected contact, meaning there is always a barrier between animal and keeper. To give Izu the physical interaction he seeks, keepers slip a wooden back scratcher through the mesh. His favorite scratching spot is right around the base of his luxurious mane.

Gnawing on bones helps keep the cats’ teeth and jaws in good shape.

Oshana is her own cat. “She’s more challenging,” said Alex. “You really have to earn her trust. You don’t just walk in the door on day one and expect her to play along. It takes a lot of time and commitment to gain her trust.” But Alex said it can be “as simple as walking in and always saying hello to her, calling her by name. The more she sees you, the better.”

Sometimes, one way to get Oshana’s interest is to pay attention to her best buddy, Mina. Mina is beneath Oshana on the hierarchy. Sweet and smart, she seeks out keeper attention when Izu and Oshana are occupied elsewhere. However, if Mina is being scratched and enjoying interaction with the keepers, Oshana notices—and she comes over and squeezes in front of Mina to get her share.

If you can escape that mesmerizing gaze, check out the spots at the base of the whiskers. The pattern differs from cat to cat and is one way researchers can identify individuals in the field.

Two other Lion Camp residents, Ernest and Miss Ellen, are the offspring of Oshana and Izu. Born in June 2014, they alternate time in the front habitat and a back space known as Cub Camp. But no matter where they are, these two are actively engaged in lion business. Miss Ellen is inquisitive and, in Alex’s opinion, “probably the smartest. She was quick to learn the basic husbandry behaviors, and her curiosity level is amazing!”

“If the sprinkers go off when Miss Ellen is in the main habitat, she plays with them,” explained Alex. “She also loves playing with the big Boomer Ball. She puts a lot of energy into attacking it and chasing it down.”

Ernest, while active and energetic, isn’t so much about play. “He’s too busy trying to be a guy,” said Alex. He can hear and smell Izu, so as a young male, Ernest is figuring out his place in this territory. When the groups switch spaces, the keepers clean and tidy first, to mitigate any smells or visuals that might worry the two males. Then keepers put out other enticing scents, like wintergreen and peppermint, as well as sheep’s wool and bedding from the okapis. “Ernest and Izu seem to enjoy these the most,” said Alex. “They’ll roll in the urine-soaked shavings until their mane is full of them!”

Lions in the City

The San Diego Zoo is an urban oasis, surrounded by sounds you might expect in a city: traffic, planes, people. Yet in the early morning and again in the late afternoon, if you’re within a mile or so of the Zoo, you may hear something astonishing: the roar of a lion. M’bari, the Zoo’s adult male lion, greets and ends each day with the iconic, sonorous call. Sometimes, he also lets loose when a group of visitors have gathered to hear a keeper talk about the “king of beasts.” The keepers don’t mind being upstaged. How could they, when they see the amazed faces of Zoo guests feeling the reverberation of the mighty roar?

M’bari and his mate, Etosha, were part of the first pride that lived in Lion Camp at the Park. They came to the Harry and Grace Steele Elephant Odyssey in 2009, and have been holding court in the presence of admiring visitors ever since. They each have a distinct personality—and M’bari’s is as big as his gorgeous mane.

“M’bari is confident and particular,” said Kimberly Hyde, a senior keeper at the Zoo. “He doesn’t like having his routine changed, but sometimes it’s necessary.” M’bari’s confidence sometimes shows in his interactions with staff. He likes to test newcomers; when Kimberly was new, during training sessions he would ignore her as she gave cues, and look directly at the other keeper instead. However, once keepers pass muster, M’Bari will come inside to greet them when he sees them arrive.
Female Etosha differs from M’bari, and not just because she lacks a mane. “She likes all the keepers; she’s very laid back—very little bothers her,” said Kimberly. “Etosha just goes with the flow. She also engages more with enrichment, so we give her more challenging things.”

Cleverly crafted cardboard boxes and tubes make stimulating enrichment items—sometimes yielding amusing results.

For example, the lions get cow femurs for enrichment. Once, keepers hid the bones in burlap sacks. M’bari walked around with the bag in his mouth for a while, then dropped it and took a nap. Etosha, on the other paw, spent time trying to figure out how to open the bag until…success! When she was finished enjoying the meat on that femur, she picked up the bag M’bari had abandoned, opened it, and enjoyed his, too!

For Etosha, the more challenging or different the enrichment, the better, but M’bari’s mind works differently. Understanding this, the keepers scale enrichment to each animal’s needs and personality. “When we plan enrichment for M’bari, we start with something simple. The next time we make it a little harder, so that, over time, he can problem solve step by step.”

Enrichment comes in many forms, and sometimes a change in location creates excitement. The keepers did a habitat swap one day, switching the lions to the jaguars’ space, and vice versa. They then stood by and watched the cats’ reactions. “Besides being stimulated by the smells left behind by the spotted cats, M’bari and Etosha were rubbing and rolling in the plants, and they loved the platforms in the jaguars’ exhibit,” said Kimberly. As a result, extra plants and two platforms were added to the lions’ regular space—and the latter especially get a lot of use.

Look at a lion, and you can’t miss the massive muzzle. With its enlarged nasal cavity and olfactory receptors, smell plays an important role in a lion’s life. Understanding that fact, the Zoo’s lion keepers place scents throughout the exhibit for the cats to investigate. Cinnamon is a favorite, and Etosha seems to particularly like expensive perfume. But the one that is always enjoyed is…elephant dung. “They roll in it, rub it all over themselves, lick it,” said Kimberly. “They really get into it!”


Just 100 years ago, 200,000 wild lions roamed Africa. Today, the entire population is only about 10 percent of that number. If this trend continues, could we face a world without lions? As apex predators, lions help control the number of grazing wildlife. A population explosion of grass- and shrub-eaters could destroy habitat for other animals—as well as humans. San Diego Zoo Global supports and works with community conservation programs in lion areas. They focus on changing attitudes toward these cats, protecting livestock, and ensuring that the landscape supports lions, their prey, and local people. Together, we can all help this iconic species keep roaring into the future.