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Texas Zoo lion cubs celebrate first birthday

By Gheni_Platenburg
Jan. 15, 2011 at 10:05 p.m.
Updated Jan. 14, 2011 at 7:15 p.m.

For Aesa and Gaia's first birthday at the Texas Zoo on Saturday, they both received food packaged in leaves and wrapped in boxes that said "Happy Birthday." The presents were left for the cubs by their handlers and were opened in front of visitors who came to watch.

The Texas Zoo turned into party central on Saturday as zoo staff and zoo visitors gathered to celebrate the first birthday of the zoo's lion cubs.

"I'm surprised they are already 1," said Arianna Ramirez, who works as the cubs' keeper. "They've gotten so big."

Onlookers sang "Happy Birthday" around the decorated exhibit as Aesa and Gaia raced toward personally addressed boxes that contained special birthday treats.

The sisters quickly ravaged the cardboard boxes to uncover pieces of their feline diet wrapped in zebra grass.

Jan Dunaway, the zoo's curator, said they would repeat the birthday ceremony twice more throughout the day, but the cubs would only be receiving enough feline diet to equal the four pounds they normally during the day so as to not interrupt their diet.

"We don't want them too thin or too fat," said Dunaway.

Aesa and Gaia were born at the Austin Zoo & Animal Sanctuary

They came to the Texas Zoo in March 2010 as fuzzy, playful 10-week-old toddlers.

During the past year, the two have made noticeable physical changes, particularly in the weight category.

Upon their arrival, Dunaway said Aesa weighed only eight pounds while Gaia weighted 16.

Now, Aesa weighs 140 pounds and her sister weighs 145 pounds.

"People come to check on them and to see how much they've grown," said Dunaway, who said the zoo plans to expand the lions' exhibit in mid-2011.

As the pair has grown older, Dunaway said their individual personalities have also become more noticeable.

"Gaia used to be the leader of the pack. Now, Aesa is," said Dunaway, who said the two are now considered to be in their early teens. "Aesa is always the first to get into something."

Despite getting older, the two have not lost their playful ways.

"They are still playful. If you watch them, they will stalk each other behind the rocks then pounce on each other," said Dunaway, who said the two go through toys quickly. "Then like all good kiddies, they sleep during the hottest part of the day."

She said the two are not always perfect kids though.

"Like any teenager, they have their days when they just aren't going to do something," said Dunaway. "They tussle over food, and then they love each other, but it never escalates beyond mouthing."

The two still serve as each other's security blanket.

"If you separate one from the other, they whimper," said Dunaway.

Life in the zoo is different than what it would be for the cubs if they were still in the jungle at this point in their lives.

"If they were in the wild, Mom would just now be taking them out to hunt with her so they could learn how to do it," said Dunaway.

One downside is the decreased physical interaction between the trainers and keepers and the sisters, said Dunaway.

The last time Dunaway held the cubs was when they were 6-months-old, which is around the time the humans ceased entering their cage, she said.

Staff had to stop entering the cage before the cubs realized they could confront humans, she said.

Despite the decreased physical interaction, the bright cubs have still managed to capture many hearts.

"I feel like I'm their big Mom," said Ramirez, 23. "They look for me. I feel special that they can pick me out of a crowd."

Party-attendees said they enjoyed helping the cubs celebrate their first birthday.

"They're growing slower than I thought they would, but based on their paws they will probably be rather large," said Terese Arnecky, 36.

"I liked to watch them eat their cake," said Terese's daughter Madeline.

Dunaway shared what zoo visitors can expect from the cubs in the upcoming years.

"They'll get to be more laid back and less likely to want to play, but they will stay kids for about another three to four years," said Dunaway.

News on whether the cubs are truly Barbary Lions, which is a nearly extinct subspecies of lion that hails from North Africa, is expected to come in another three to four years, which is when the cubs' are old enough to have their DNA taken.



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