Poop in the Hallway: Lion Style Love

Written by Jenni Campbell, Zookeeper, North Carolina Zoo

Hey, ladies! Has your love life gotten a little stale? Is your man uninterested? Has the spark in your relationship died away? Try making your mate jealous by leaving the poop of another man in the hallway.

Disclaimer: This may only work if you’re a female lion. Maybe a little backstory will be helpful.

If you have visited the North Carolina Zoo, you’ve undoubtedly seen one of our most iconic couples – the African lions, Reilly and Mekita. If they were a celebrity couple, would they be Miley or Rita? Something to ponder. They seem like a great couple, following each other around the habitat, sniffing each other’s bums, and taking companionable naps together.  They’ve raised four cubs and are enjoying the peaceful days of their happy relationship.

Pictured Above: Reilly, male lion

But it has not always been a fairy tale love story.  When Mekita first arrived at the North Carolina Zoo, Reilly was looking for new love after the loss of his first mate, Sala.  Mekita was a little over a year old, so she was young and inexperienced with adult male lions other than her father. She was born at the Columbus Zoo, and her keepers there reported the lioness was the shiest of her littermates. She was, indeed, very timid in the beginning. 

Any time new animals are introduced to each other, there are specific steps that must take place. First, a quarantine period ensures that animals are healthy enough to be integrated into our current Zoo population. Then they are moved into their new housing space where they can get comfortable with their new home and habitat.

Next, we start what we call a “howdy,” where the animals can get to know each other in a protected situation, usually with a mesh barrier between them. Caretakers watch for positive behaviors, like sniffing, rolling to show submission, touching gently, or playfully before putting new animals together.

Male African lion

Reilly, our male lion, had a bit of a rocky start with his mate, Mekita

But sometimes we don’t see all these great behaviors. In those cases, we look for indifference without aggression. With Reilly and Mekita, it was weeks and weeks of indifference.

So, after careful consideration, the lion care team decided to go ahead and open the door and physically introduce the pair.

The indifference was gone!

Mekita came charging into the room and smacked Reilly across the face.  They tussled; Reilly pinned her down to show his dominance.  She sprung up and smacked him again.  Again, he pinned her. After less than a minute, the lions were separated, and introductions were over. As you can imagine, this was not what we wanted to see, and it was pretty traumatic for Mekita.

Discussions with the Lion Species Survival Plan (SSP) – a group of experts in the field who manage lions in accredited zoos across North America, led us to the decision to start over with our howdy introductions.  At first, Mekita was terrified but slowly warmed up to Reilly, and eventually started showing all those behaviors we were looking for in the beginning.  She would approach the mesh, sniff him, and then flop down on the floor rolling around in a sign of submission. We were also terrified but decided the time had come to try opening the door again. 

Many months after opening the doors between Reilly and Mekita for the first time, we held our breath and did it again. This time was different because Reilly didn’t care to establish his dominance. He let Mekita push him around.  She would steal his bone. She would scratch up his majestic face with her claws. She even injured his tail with a swift bite. Reilly would cower in the corner of the habitat, and she wouldn’t let him move around his home for the last 12 years. 

Pictured Above: Mekita with three of her four cubs

By having the feces of another male lion shipped to us and placed in the hallway of their night quarters, we were able to stimulate Reilly’s interest in Mekita. Sometimes, in the animal kingdom, just knowing that there is competition out there is what gets the male libido going. And it worked wonders. Once breeding behaviors began, Reilly and Mekita quickly figured out appropriate roles with each other. Reilly and Mekita soon were the proud parents of four cubs – two girls and two boys.

Now Reilly is a doting mate to Mekita. When they are separated briefly to eat their dinner, they call back and forth to each other.

Reilly always leaves a few crumbs behind for his lady, and when they are back together, they sniff each other and head butt, like long lost lovers. Then she finishes off the crumbs of his dinner, and he waits for her before they head back out to their hillside together. 

So, ladies, if your man isn’t showing you any tenderness, try a little poop in the hallway. What could it hurt? It certainly worked for Mekita and Reilly.

Pictured Below: The poop worked. Mekita and Reilly had four healthly lion cubs in 2014.