New cub(s) in town? Lincoln Park Zoo announces lion pregnancy

Officials said the pregnancy could bring up to five new cubs to the zoo, an “exciting” prospect for both the zoo and a “vulnerable” African lion population.

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Zari, a 4-year-old African Lion at the Lincoln Park Zoo, stands with her 9-month-old cub Pilipili. The zoo announced Zari is pregnant and due to give birth to more cubs in January.

Zari, a 4-year-old African Lion at the Lincoln Park Zoo, stands with her 9-month-old cub, Pilipili. The zoo announced Zari is pregnant and due to give birth to more cubs in January.

Rachel Markowitz/Lincoln Park Zoo

Chicago might be getting some new cubs, but they won’t be playing at Wrigley Field.

The Lincoln Park Zoo on Friday announced one of its African lions is due to give birth next month.

After observing behavior consistent with breeding, zoo staff members were able to confirm through hormone tests and an ultrasound that 4-year-old African lion Zari is pregnant.

The zoo could be expecting anywhere between one and five cubs in January, officials said.

African Lions Jabari (left) and Zari (right) lay in the sun at the Lincoln Park Zoo. The pair are expecting anywhere from one to five cubs in January, the zoo announced Friday.

African Lions Jabari (left) and Zari lay in the sun at the Lincoln Park Zoo. The pair are expecting anywhere from one to five cubs in January, the zoo announced Friday.

Chelsea Vann/Lincoln Park Zoo

“This is a very exciting time for the lion pride at the zoo but also for the entire zoo population,” Mike Murray, the zoo’s curator of mammals and animal behavioral husbandry, said in a statement. “A birth represents preservation of a species that has faced many challenges in the wild.”

African lions are considered a “vulnerable” species, with declining wild populations estimated between 23,000 and 39,000, down from half a million in 1950, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The pregnancy wasn’t entirely unexpected, as the breeding came after recommendations from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ “survival program” for captive African lions. It was suggested the Lincoln Park pair produce cubs after genetic testing was conducted on Zari and her 5-year-old mate, Jabari. 

Murray added that the team is “cautiously optimistic” about the potential new additions to the zoo given the same couple have been raising their cub Pilipili since his birth in March. The 9-month-old lion is now showing the beginnings of the “iconic” lion mane and has “fully integrated” with the rest of the pride, according to zoo officials. 

African Lion Zari and her 9-month-old cub Pilipili lay together at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Zoo officials confirmed in a statement Friday that Zari is expecting more cubs in January.

African Lion Zari and her 9-month-old cub, Pilipili, at the Lincoln Park Zoo, where officials confirmed in a statement Friday that Zari is expecting more cubs in January.

Diana Miller/Lincoln Park Zoo

Staff at the zoo are also anticipating some benefits for Pilipili with new cubs joining the pride, as he can exhibit “normal cub behaviors” with younger members of the group.

“They get to play and interact in that juvenile way that maybe they can’t do with their adult social members,” said the zoo’s general curator, Dave Bernier, who oversees animal care. “We think that it will be beneficial for him.”

Bernier credits the Pepper Family Wildlife Center, a renovated addition to the zoo’s Lion House finished in fall 2021, which was designed to create a more comfortable environment for the zoo’s big cats.

The 18,000-square-foot facility includes a separate area for Zari to stay near the end of her pregnancy and care for her cubs in the early months after their birth — something that’s instrumental in caring for newborns, according to Bernier. 

At the prospect of having five new cubs in his care next month, Bernier said he was excited to see what it would mean for the new facility and for visitors of the zoo. 

“It would be a great test for the building and it would work out really well,” Bernier said. “It would be a beautiful sight to see.”

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