Oregon Zoo names African lion 'Father of the Year'

Oregon Zoo names African lion 'Father of the Year'
African male lion, Zawadi Mungu, with his cubs in the Predators of the Serengeti habitat at the Oregon Zoo. © Oregon Zoo / photo by Shervin Hess

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Oregon Zoo has named its 2014 Father of the Year: African lion Zawadi Mungu, the proud — if sometimes grouchy — papa to three not-so-little kittens born at the zoo last Sept. 7.

“I think Zawadi’s an excellent choice for Father of the Year,” said Laura Weiner, senior keeper for the zoo’s Africa section. “For a lion, being a father is more about protecting your offspring than playing with them. And Zawadi’s been great about watching over his cubs — while at the same time allowing them to use him as a jungle gym.”

In a video released this March, the fearsome 500-pound lion is seen venturing outside with his energetic cubs for the first time, inviting a flurry of pint-sized attacks on his mane, tail and patience.

“What little lion cubs do is practice hunting, and the way they do that is on their parents and siblings,” Weiner said. “They are constantly stalking, chasing, pouncing, biting — and Zawadi allows all that. He was a bit snarly at first, but in general, he’s been very patient with the cubs. A few days after the initial introductions, he was grooming them. And lately he’s been playing with the cubs and occasionally snuggling up next to them.”

Weiner is pleasantly surprised by all the attention that’s come Zawadi’s way this year — the video of his first encounter with the cubs has logged more than 1.9 million views on the zoo’s YouTube channel — and says she’s grateful for the chance to highlight African lions and raise awareness about their plight in the wild.

“Just two decades ago, lions were plentiful in much of Africa,” she said. “But today they are vanishing at alarming rates. Hopefully, we can start a new chapter in lion conservation.”

The Oregon Zoo supports Living with Lions, a conservation research group working to protect Africa’s dwindling lion populations by employing Maasai warriors to monitor and help reduce conflict with predators.

The zoo’s three adult lions — Zawadi, Neka and Kya — came to the Oregon Zoo in 2009 based on a breeding recommendation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan for African lions. Zawadi, the male, came from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and the females, Neka and Kya, came from the Virginia Zoo and Wisconsin’s Racine Zoo respectively.

The AZA has established Species Survival Plans for many threatened or endangered species — cooperative breeding programs that help create genetically diverse, self-sustaining populations to guarantee the long-term future of animals. These SSPs also support relevant field projects, research and public education to help prevent animal endangerment and extinction.