Female lion cub Binti carries a stick in her mouth at the Detroit Zoo.

Female lion cub Binti carries a stick in her mouth at the Detroit Zoo.

Photo provided by the Detroit Zoo

Detroit Zoo celebrates its first lion cub born in 40 years

By: Sarah Wojcik | C&G Newspapers | Published January 13, 2021

 Binti chews on a stick while lying next to her aunt, Amirah, at the Detroit Zoo.

Binti chews on a stick while lying next to her aunt, Amirah, at the Detroit Zoo.

Photo provided by the Detroit Zoo


ROYAL OAK — When Binti, a female lion cub born Sept. 10 at the Detroit Zoo, successfully rejoined the lion pride just before Christmas Day, the Detroit Zoological Society rejoiced.

Binti, whose name means “daughter” in Swahili, survived an emergency cesarean section during which three of her siblings were stillborn. For the first couple of months of her life, she was hand-reared by humans at the zoo, as the surgery and recovery prevented the normal bonding process between cub and mother.

DZS Chief Life Sciences Officer Scott Carter said the zoo knew Binti’s mother, Asha, 4, was pregnant and had been monitoring her via cameras, but it became apparent that complications arose during the birth, so staff stepped in to assist.

“The birth was quite difficult,” DZS Associate Curator of Mammals Betsie Meister said. “One of the reasons why (we have not had a lion birth here in 40 years) is because we always maintained space to rescue other lions that were in need.”

In the wild, she said, lions go off to the bushes to give birth and return with their cubs a week or two later to reintroduce them to the rest of the family. The cubs’ aunts and sisters then take on rearing responsibilities.

“Lions are a very social species of cat, and we wanted her to learn and interact with the pride at a very early age,” Meister said. “The best way to do that is to introduce the sights and the smells of the pride, so she can learn they’re still around and she’ll be back with them someday.”

Zoo staff bottle-fed Binti a special formula for zoo carnivores around the clock for the first weeks of her life in an incubator. They also introduced her to the bedding and audio recordings of the adult lions.

“We would pick her up by the scruff of her neck like her mom would,” Meister said. “I would have gloves on, and I would wet my gloves down and kind of roughly pet her like mom would be grooming or licking her.”

When Binti was approximately 6 weeks old, zoo staff brought her to the lion building and placed her in a specialized playpen where she and the other lions could see each other. Eventually, she was moved to a stall with a mesh door separating her from the others, and Amirah, Asha’s sister, began spending more and more time with the cub.

“She would sit and watch her,” Meister said. “She began laying next to her, sniffing at her through the mesh door. … That’s why we chose Amirah, who was showing the most interest, (to begin integrating Binti with the pride).”

Asha and Amirah came to the Detroit Zoo from the Buffalo Zoo in May 2019. Binti’s father, Simba, once lived with the royal family of Qatar and found sanctuary at the Detroit Zoo in October 2012 after his owners voluntarily relinquished him, and female Erin was rescued from a junkyard in Kansas in 2009, according to the zoo.

Meister said Binti transferred to the solid foods that the other lions consume at around 2 months old, and the zoo has had to increase her diet several times because of the amount of exercise she is now getting by running around her habitat and playing with Amirah.

“She loves being outside, running around, and Amirah is a very playful lion,” Carter said. “She loves to play with the toys the keepers give her, and Binti will engage in play with her and chase her around. It’s just a lot of fun to watch.”

Meister said guests have the best chance of seeing Binti outside on sunny, early afternoons on the heated rocks in the lion habitat. She has the choice to go inside the lion habitat building on chilly days, so she may not be visible to guests when temperatures are below 40 degrees.

“(Binti) has grown so much, has a lot of energy, and is very curious and playful,” Elizabeth Arbaugh, DZS curator of mammals, said in a prepared statement. “She is learning to live with other lions, starting with her aunt, Amirah. We expect that she will eventually live with her entire family as a member of the Detroit Zoo pride.”

The lions’ 9,600-square-foot African Grasslands habitat features elevated ledges, grassy terrain, a shallow pool and a 17-foot-tall acrylic wall for close-up views of the large cats by guests.

The Detroit Zoo is located at 8450 W. 10 Mile Road, west of Woodward Avenue.

For more information or to make a reservation, visit www.detroit zoo.org or call (248) 541-5757.