LINCOLN PARK — First to greet the waiting crowd Saturday at Lincoln Park Zoo was Zari, a graceful lioness and first-time mother, basking in the early-morning sun. Then came Jabari, the regal leader of the pride and new father.
And then, after a brief few minutes of hesitation, strutted Pilipili, the 10-week old, approximately 20-pound male cub who in March became the first lion born at the zoo in two decades. He followed his mother paw-for-paw as she gave him a tour of the Savannah habitat, growing ever more confident as he got a first look at his new home and gave Chicagoans their own first look at the cutest cub outside of Wrigley Field.
The zoo opened two hours early for members, with Pilipili stepping into the habitat for the first time just after 8:30 a.m.
“He’s never felt grass before,” said zoo spokesperson Jillian Braun. “So this is all very new for him.”
But Pilipili took it in stride, exploring the enclosure corner-to-corner as hundreds of zoo members stood on tip-toes or sat on shoulders to get a glimpse of the lion family. Luckily for the onlookers, Pilipili’s inquisitiveness was on full display Saturday, climbing up rocks and rambling down ramps until his mother decided she’d had enough, grabbing him by the scruff to get some shade.
“Zari has been an incredible first-time mother,” the zoo’s curator of mammals Mike Murray said. “Every step of development of this cub, she’s been immediately attentive. And he’s been really curious behind the scenes.”
Pilipili was born at the zoo on March 15 and has reached normal health milestones over the past two months, like eating solid food. His name is pronounced ‘pee-lee-pee-lee,’ according to zoo staff, and means “pepper” in Swahili — an homage to the Pepper family, who helped fund the zoo’s new Savannah-style lion enclosure. The two-year renovation of the historic lion house finished in October 2021, just in time for the arrival of parents four-year-old Jabari and three-year-old Zari, as well as Zari’s two sisters, Cleo and Hasira.
Similar to rhinos, gorillas and other endangered animals, most lions in captivity are part of what’s called a “species survival plan” in which mammal curators across the country work together to provide demographic surveys of the species. As part of that process, they play a sort of scientific game of matchmaker — pairing up male and female lions that they think have the best chance of breeding, based upon age and genetics.
“It’s a huge collaborative effort,” Murray said.
Of course, matchmaking is about more than data, and there’s no guarantee that paired-up lions will procreate. But Murray said Jabari, who came from a zoo in Des Moines, and Zari, who came from South Carolina, were a natural couple from the get-go. Zoo staff quickly discovered Zari was pregnant after studying hormone levels from her feces back in late 2021.
“It is an art and a science,” Murray said of the breeding process. “This timing is pretty normal. It normally doesn’t take long for a male and female to produce an offspring.”
After an approximately 100-day gestation period, Pilipili became the fifth member of the fledgling pride. The cub had been living behind-the-scenes with his mother for the past 10 weeks, Murray said, closely mirroring lions’ early developmental stages in nature, when mothers spend most of the initial post-birth days self-secluding.
The lions are native to the savannahs and grasslands of Sub-Saharan Africa, with an estimated fewer than 25,000 remaining in the wild, according to National Geographic.
Because Pilipili had shown early signs of curiosity and been socialized with his aunts, Mr. Murray and staff felt he was ready to step into the zoo-lights.
“We estimated that he would do well out here based on how confident he was inside, and how attentive Zari was,” Murray said. “It went well.”
Originally scheduled for Friday, the coming-out date was moved to Saturday because of the stormy weather forecast.
Over the next two-to-three years, Pilipili could grow into an approximately 400 pound lion. From now until then, he will have the freedom to roam the enclosure at his own discretion.
But on Saturday, Zari still led the way through the habitat, with Pilipili following closely behind his mother as they traipsed up pride rocks and grassy hills. Rather than carrying the growing Pilipili, Zari will now mainly communicate with him vocally, Murray said, using subtle sounds often difficult to hear behind the glass.
“He’s now at the age where she wants to teach him how to maneuver around,” Murray said. “So it’s not so much her picking him up anymore, as her asking him to follow her.”
But Pilipili remains, for the moment, a young cub. Outside the enclosure, the Kolpak family eagerly looked on as they caught a fleeting glimpse of Pilipili, his scruff hanging from Zari’s mouth.
“I thought it was so cute how the mother lifted him up with her teeth,” said 10-year-old Xavier Kolpak.
“Lions are my favorite animal,” 11-year-old sister Charlotte Kolpak said. “I’m a Leo. And I just think they’re really cool.”
Pilipili will now be on display at Lincoln Park Zoo during normal visiting hours. The zoo is open to the public daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
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