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Local women make new furry friends

By Gheni_Platenburg
May 12, 2010 at 12:12 a.m.

Aesa the lion cub stares into the camera lens of  Advocate videographer Bill Clough on Wednesday. The lion cubs will go on exhibit soon and interaction with the public will be limited to the animal keeper, Hannah Wolfshohl.

Two Crossroads women had the experience of a lifetime Wednesday morning when they spent some up close and personal time with the Texas Zoo's lion cubs, Aesa and Gaia.

"It was a wonderful experience," said 48-year-old Placedo resident Hilary Blackmon. "You don't have to travel far away, and you still get to play with these animals."

Victoria resident Tina Wayne, 55, won the opportunity to spend 30 minutes of supervised time with the 4-month-old sister cubs by placing the highest bid in the Victoria Rotary Club's annual clay shooting fundraiser and auction.

The fundraiser and auction, which was held on April 24-25, yielded around $54,000.

Wayne, who won the lion cub playdate with a bid of $450, said she was excited about meeting the cubs.

"Years ago, I experienced baby lion cubs and I loved it," said Wayne. "I couldn't wait."

Wayne said she chose Blackmon to participate in the event with her because they were both big animal lovers.

Andrea Blomberg, the Texas Zoo's executive director, said a playdate with Aesa and Gaia was not a part of the original auction items.

"People absolutely love to sit and watch them and their antics. We know some people come specifically to see the cubs," said Blomberg, who was at the auction as a participant. "I thought I'm missing an opportunity here. We really need to let people know we are here and we care."

She said the decision to auction time with the cubs was not an act of favoritism toward the Rotary Club.

"It's not that I chose to offer it to one organization over another. I just happened to be at that event, supporting the event," said Blomberg.

Blomberg said this was the last time an opportunity of this nature will happen because of the cubs' changing mental and physical developmental stages.

"They are very playful and very grabby because they are learning their hunting skills right now," said animal keeper Hannah Wolfshohl.

Now that the two are older, Wolfshohl said sharp claws and teeth are some of the only things the two have in common.

"Aesa is more dominant and Gaia is the submissive one," said Wolfshohl. "Aesa is always the first one to jump on you, the first one to run to the food and the first one to go get a toy."

Currently, the furry brown and tan cubs weigh around 50 pounds each.

However, if DNA tests come back proving the cubs are indeed Barbary lions, a subspecies of lion that hails from North Africa, scientists say the pair could reach up to 450 pounds each.

Blomberg was not sure when the zoo would receive the test results.

"It's an extensive process. They are collecting (DNA samples) from all over the world deciphering how strong their DNA is," said Blomberg.

Before the playdate began in the zoo's clinic, Jan Dunaway, the zoo's curator, laid down some ground rules.

"For the most part they are good girls that just like to play," said Dunaway, who helped supervise the meeting. "You can rub your hands across them, but don't pull them to you."

Wayne and Blackmon saw firsthand that like most young children, Aesa and Gaia could be possessive and fight when it comes to their toys.

"That's Aesa telling Gaia, that's mine," said Dunaway referring to one of Aesa's roars.

During the meeting, the pair also proved to Wayne and Blackmon that they love their toys to death, literally.

"Toys are for 24 hours," said Dunaway. "This is the reason why they have no stuffed animals, it takes seconds for them to tear them up."

After 30 minutes of petting, playing tug of war and fetch with their visitors, the cubs were tuckered out.

Gaia even crawled into a storage cabinet of baby blankets to lie down, signaling the end of the playdate.

Both women enjoyed their time with the cubs.

"It was fun," said Blackmon, who did not let a fractured anklebone keep her from participating in the event.

"Typically, these are the type of animals you only see in the wild at a photo shoot through binoculars or on a safari," said Wayne. "It was everything I thought it would be and more. They are adorable. People should really go see them. Their faces are just so precious."

She continued, "They were like domesticated cats, but with bigger feet."

Wayne said the zoo staff helped to enhance the quality of their experience.

'They were really conscientious about making this experience wonderful. which they did," said Wayne.

Blomberg said the zoo is accepting donations for sheets, toys, blankets and money toward building the cubs a bigger habitat, which they will need within the year.

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