Zoo ready to welcome a litter of lion cubs

PORTLAND, Ore. - Move over, Lily, there might soon be a new reigning champion of cute at the Oregon Zoo.

Zookeepers said Neka, one of two female lions at the zoo, is pregnant and could give birth to a litter of cubs within the next ten days.

Although she is pregnant, zookeepers caution that there are still many opportunities for complications, especially considering this is Neka's first pregnancy.

"Naturally, we're all excited. But we know there's a lot that could go wrong," said Jennifer Davis, the curator for the zoo's Africa section. "Even if the birth itself goes smoothly, we don't know how Neka will react to her offspring. Some lions don't react well. We hope her nurturing instincts will kick in and she'll take good care of them, but that doesn't always happen, especially with first-time moms."

Zookeepers said they believe the cubs were conceived in late May and they have some pretty good evidence to back that up; zoo staffers and visitors in the Predators of the Serengeti exhibit saw Neka mate with Zawadi Mungu, the Oregon Zoo's male lion.

Last month researchers at the Smithsonian's National Zoo confirmed that Neka was pregnant by measuring hormone levels in her feces.

If you looked at Neka you might not immediately realize she is pregnant. She has gained a bit of weight and is a little crankier, according to zookeepers.

Lions typically have a gestation period of just about three months.

Neka, Zawadi and the zoo's third lion, Kya, are all at the Oregon Zoo as part of a national program to breed lions. They were brought to Oregon in 2009 from zoos in San Diego, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The program is coordinated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums with the goal of building the populations of endangered or threatened species. Some of the revenue raised by the zoo while exhibiting the lions goes to fun field projects, research and public outreach, according to a zoo spokesman.