It’s no secret that dogs are man’s best friend, but in Idaho, one dog has befriended an unlikely critter — the Idaho Falls Zoo’s 2-month-old African lion cub.
Justice, a 2-year-old Great Pyrenees, isn’t just a great pal to the tiny feline. She’s also playing a vital role in raising him after the cub, who hasn’t yet been named, had to be separated from his mother.
“Unfortunately, shortly after his birth, the cub had to be removed from his mom to be treated for a medical issue. We are pleased to report that he has completely recovered and is almost ready to be returned to his mother,” zoo veterinarian Rhonda Aliah said in a news release.
The Idaho State Journal reported that the cub’s mother, Kimani, was a well-meaning but overzealous parent. The new cub is Kimani’s first, and zoo officials told the ISJ she went overboard cleaning a small cut the cub got when she was carrying him. Because of her constant tongue baths, the cub’s wound couldn’t heal, so zoo staff thought it best to give the baby lion a bit of a breather from Kimani and his father, Dahoma.
Part of the pride
Still, it was important for the little lion to learn some social skills if he was to be reintroduced to the zoo’s pride at some point. That’s where Justice comes in.
When the dog was found by local animal rescuers in Idaho Falls, she was caring for a litter of puppies and one weak sheep. Justice’s puppies have since been rehomed, but her mothering instincts are being put to great use at the zoo.
It’s actually not unheard of for zoo carnivores to pal around with domesticated dogs. The San Diego Zoo, often lauded as one of the world’s best zoological facilities, regularly pairs its cheetah cubs with a “puppy buddy” to help them relax.
Justice’s role is more teacher than therapist, zoo staff said.
“An important aspect of animal development, particularly with baby carnivores, is having an adult animal teach ‘animal etiquette.’ This includes not biting other animals hard enough to injure them, and not using your claws to climb on your elders,” said zoo curator Darrell Markum.
Thanks to Justice, the cub’s chances of rejoining its parents — always risky in a case like this — are much better. Had he been raised entirely by humans, he might not understand how to interact with Kimani and Dahoma when he’s big enough to be reintroduced to them.
A special birth
The little lion is a big deal for the Idaho Falls Zoo. His birth on Feb. 17 was the zoo’s first for its African lions. Both Kimani and Dahoma are first-time parents as well. The cub’s genes are unique and add diversity to the captive lion pool.
In the wild, African lion populations have dropped 40 percent in the past 30 years, according to the zoo. The cub’s birth is a important step in a conservation program developed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The zoo has tentative plans to put Justice and the cub on exhibit together daily between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., as weather and the lion’s health allow. If you’re planning a day trip to Idaho Falls (a four-hour drive from Boise), check the zoo’s Facebook page or website for the latest on whether you can sneak a peek at the pair.