On May 5th of last year I was leading my Workshop group on a tour of the Zoo’s African savanna. Owing to an issue with the water fixture in the main lion exhibit, the white lion cubs were temporarily on display in their behind-the-scenes holding. I took my charges down the path to the lion house and showed them the playful balls of fluff cavorting about there. Only two other members of the public were back there at the time, and those two ladies were having a conversation with the Keeper who was monitoring the proceedings. After we had been there a few minutes, I heard the Keeper raise her voice and say, “I’ll bet Steve would know!” I glanced over to see all three of them grinning at me, so I asked my group to wait a moment while I walked over to see what they were talking about. The Keeper told me that the ladies (I recognized them as Zoo Members I had seen before) had been down in the Canadian Domain and were certain they had spotted a baby lynx in the den there. She wondered if I knew anything about it. Thinking they meant the den behind the exhibit – and remembering the cub that had been born in there the previous year but had not survived through the summer – I hesitated to say anything until I had more information. Eventually I replied that I hadn’t heard anything of a recent lynx birth, but I would head down there myself the next day to check into it (I had to leave that afternoon right after the Workshop was done).
The next day was Friday, May 6th. I had another Workshop that day and as soon as it was done I hurriedly changed clothes and rushed up to the lynx exhibit. I saw Ember in her den at the front of the exhibit and she was surrounded by straw. I realized that the women had thought they had seen a baby in that den, which made a lot more sense. In the meantime, too, I had asked around a bit and it seemed the rumour of a lynx kitten was making the rounds. I fully expected to see a baby, so I settled in to wait until it came into view. I was there a good 20 minutes or so when I suddenly realized that what I had thought was one of Ember’s paws was actually the tiny head of a newborn kitten! I texted my partner, Sarah, to tell her of the exciting news and waited for a chance to grab a photo or two. This was quite difficult to achieve, because the den was very dim and I had to shoot through a small-mesh fence at the front of the exhibit. Nevertheless, I was able to snap off a few shots, with the one here being the very first of them.
I had been there for about another 20 minutes or so, watching Ember and her baby and kind of zoning out a bit, when I began to realize there was something kind of odd about the kitten’s ears. I couldn’t work out what was bothering me about them, until all of a sudden it struck me: they were two right ears! This epiphany had not yet had time to germinate into the obvious conclusion when all of a sudden the two right ears split apart and went different directions. Oh my goodness, there were two kittens!! I excitedly texted this info to Sarah as well, then proceeded to spend the next 45 minutes or so convincing myself that there were three! four! five babies! in the den. Everything that moved at all was another baby, in my mind. At the end of the day, however, it was pretty obvious that there were “just” the two of them. I went home and immediately shared the news with everyone, including the Keeper who had alerted me to the possibility of a lynx baby in the first place. (I found out later through an information sheet that the Canadian Domain Keepers themselves didn’t confirm the second cub until that weekend – even though they had been born on April 30th – which seems to indicate that I was the first person to be aware of the multiple birth!)
I went back day after day after day for the next few weeks – or months, really – because these babies were not common knowledge for quite a while so I had easy access to them, whereas all the other “marquee” births were besieged with visitors from the start. At one point the head of PR got a hold of me, saying she had “heard a rumour” that I might be in possession of the best photos of the cubs taken so far, and would I be willing to donate one or two for their press release – with full photo credit. I was thrilled to do so, and presented her with two dozen choices of which the one you see here made the final cut. Unfortunately, even though the Zoo put my name on the press release, the outlets that reprinted the photo gave the Toronto Zoo the credit. (Two of the photos also ended up on the Zoo’s Facebook page and…. well, that’s a story for another day.)
I could honestly fill about four pages here with photos of these gorgeous creatures, but that isn’t really the point, is it? Or is it? Hmm. Well, here: how about a small mosaic of some of the other photos I submitted to PR for the press release?
(My favourite – and it’s not close – is the first photo at the top left where Ember is watching one of the kittens squeaking with a wide-open mouth.
As I’ve previously mentioned, I saw quite a lot of this family as the kittens grew. This photo at left will forever be the single greatest one I took of the family among the myriad here on my hard drive. The sole reason this one wasn’t on the calendar? It looks very weak if cropped to 11 x 8 1/2. However, it’s striking when square – and I made a 16 x 16 version of this for my Stepmom as a Christmas present last year and it hangs proudly on the wall in her den. I showed it to my Dad and told him about the present in early November; it was the very last day I was able to show him any photos before he passed away. This shot holds very special for me, for Sarah, and for June. And I simply don’t see how I could ever have grabbed a better capture of these three gorgeous girls.
For it turned out the cubs were both girls, although for the longest time we were all pretty sure that the larger, more aggressive one would turn out to be a boy. And the story behind the photo that did make the calendar is kind of a cool one, too. The photo at right here is from the same morning: May 30th, the day they turned one month old. I had not yet seen them out of the den and, as it was a beautiful day and I had all the time in the world, I arrived at the lynx exhibit before the park even opened and planted myself there. For almost five hours when all was said and done. But oh my, was it worth it. Just before noon, with the babes settling down for yet another nap after a long drink from mom, a chipmunk made the ill-advised – and very nearly fatal – decision to run up to the entrance of the den. Luckily it realized the folly of its ways just slightly before Ember spotted it; it was thus able to escape back out through the fence with the adult lynx in very hot pursuit on its heels. Of course, this meant that Ember had bolted away from the cubs in a flash, leaving them a bit bewildered and upset in the den without her. They searched around in the straw for their mom for a few moments until she returned to the mouth of the den – but she did not enter right away. This made the cubs very brave indeed and they began to come out of the den and into the sunlight via the soft underbelly of their mama. When they had cleared Ember and were hit full-on by the bright light of noon, they were spectacular. Their eyes were an incredible shade of blue; their fur, a golden brown I had not expected. I was almost too overcome to take any pictures; luckily I snapped out of it in time and the result appears at the top of this page (and on the April page of the Baby Boom! calendar). I will trade five hours of any day to witness such beauty as a reward, let me tell you.
On February 13, 2017 the sisters and their mom left the Toronto Zoo for Parc Safari in Quebec, still having not been officially named by the Zoo – although I’d been calling them “Cinders and Ashes” (Cinders is the larger, slightly more red sister) for many months. The lion cubs left on the same day (I’ll save that story for later) so I guess it made economical sense to make just the one trip. However, this came as a surprise to a great many of us and by the time I found out it was too late to say goodbye to my beloved girls. They were off exhibit being crate trained by early February; as a result, this photo at left – taken on January 18th – is the very last one I ever took of the girls together. At that, I was very luck to get any shots of them that day; they were all in the house when I arrived – as they had been for the previous few visits because the weather had turned cold – but this time I decided I was going to wait them out. So I sat down on the viewing platform, pulled out my phone, and began to play a game. I think I was there a good 20 minutes when a Keeper vehicle passed by; I watched it go up the road and then turned to see these two beautiful faces in the doorway to their house.
Eventually Cinders came out (but not Ashes) and I spent a good hour talking to her and just watching her enjoy the air. I had no idea it would be the very last conversation I would have with her at the Toronto Zoo. I did go back and say “goodbye” to the three of them and I am certain they heard me (they certainly responded to me with great calmness for all the months I went to visit them); still, one last glimpse would have been very much appreciated. At some point this summer we will visit them in their new home when we travel to Montreal to see my cousins and aunts. I hope I’ll be able to see all of them at that time!
I will leave you with one more collage, made up of various photos I took throughout the summer and fall of 2016 as the girls eventually grew into their enormous feet – including some from a memorable day in early January when Cinders really, truly seemed to believe she could fly.
Next month is one of the two (the other being December) where I chose an animal whose birthday I did not know for sure to be in that month. I have to say, though, that there still is a strong possibility this cutie was born in May, judging from the date I took the photo. It’s a species I love to hang around with, in an area of the Zoo which is quieter than most. See you then!