I’m cheating tonight, because I’m not feeling well and have to work way too early tomorrow.  In a comment on one of my recent posts, the subject of the Elephant Odyssey exhibit at the San Diego Zoo came up.  It’s become my favorite part of the zoo in recent years because of the pair of lions that resides there.  The following is excerpted and edited from something I wrote back in February, after having met those lions for the first time:

We happened to get off the escalator/walkway thing and into the exhibit in the middle of the lion keeper’s talk. He had brought a toy – a giant plastic barrel – in the hopes that the pair of lions would be active and entertaining while a bunch of people were all standing there listening to him talk about them, and it worked. We watched the male lion, M’bari, batting the thing around from his perch up on a big rock, and then try to walk down the log to the ground with his toy still in his mouth. He failed (“They’re not the most agile cats,” the lion keeper explained. “That’s why we don’t see them in trees.”), and as he was stumbling the last few feet down the log, the female lion, Etosha, got up from where she’d been lying, and dashed over to him – half-protectively, half-reprimanding his idiocy.

I fell in love with them immediately after that.

M’bari and Etosha were imports from a zoo in South Africa, along with four other lions, of which three are at the Wild Animal Park and one was eventually sent to another zoo in Oklahoma.  They were brought in to widen the gene pool of captive lions in the United States.  The pair were meant to be a breeding pair, but it turned out that Etosha just wasn’t destined to be a mother: her first pregnancy ended in an emergency C-section, with no surviving cubs; her second resulted in just one cub, stillborn, with the rest of the litter presumed to be reabsorbed early on, because, as the keeper put it, “We hardly ever see lions having just one cub at a time;” and although her third pregnancy was technically a success, with one stillborn cub and one live cub, she lost interest in her baby after just a few weeks.  He began to suffer, so the keepers hand-raised him, and then integrated him in with his cousins over at the Wild Animal Park. “He’s doing just fine,” the keeper reassured us, “but we prefer it when mothers take care of their children.” So to prevent any further disappointments, and really, for her health, they had Etosha spayed. (This story all came out as part of an explanation of why Etosha is a little overweight. Thwarted hormones, you know.) But M’bari and Etosha are still a bonded pair, and, per their keeper, still “breed” occasionally, to re-establish their connection, as well as their power dynamic.

For the rest of our afternoon at the zoo, I remained obsessed with these lions. We hadn’t taken any pictures because we’d been too busy watching, so I searched the giftshop for some sort of magnet or postcard with their photo on it, to no avail. I couldn’t tell Doug the whole truth about what drew me to them so intensely – their relationship, yes, but also the ridiculous connection I felt with Etosha. Finally, a fellow failed mother! Actually, I think it was the combination of the two – that this failed mother could still have a loving, playful relationship with her partner.  And that this relationship includes sex, even with her hormones out of whack, which is pretty incredible for an animal that – I don’t believe so, anyway – isn’t wired to have sex for pleasure.

And no, I don’t intend on abandoning my own cub, if/when I ever have one, and yes, I know I haven’t been spayed, but sometimes my Mirena makes me feel like I have been. Whether subconsciously or consciously, there is a part of me that wonders what the point of having sex is, when there is zero chance that it’s going to serve its biological purpose.

To re-establish our connection, I guess, as well as our power dynamic.

(Photo of Etosha taken on the following trip.  Sorry for the fence in the foreground; I was trying not to get eaten.)

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