In the late spring/early summer of 2012, the Toronto Zoo welcomed three rare white lion cubs to the family, after having had to say goodbye to Nokanda, the white lioness, who passed away from cancer the year before. The male was named “Fintan” (meaning little fair one) and the other female was named “Makali” (or daring). The third cub, who has become my clear favourite over the years, was named “Lemon” (or lemon) for, I thought, her slightly yellow colouring; turns out, I was wrong. Lemon came with some… let’s call them physical challenges, and her name has more of an unfortunate origin. I can tell you, learning that has only made me fonder of her. All three are reasonably sociable and will react to voices they know and their names being called, but in my experience, Lemon has always been the most sociable when I try to get her attention. She also seems to pay more attention to what’s going on around her than the other two, notably when the animals in the exhibit opposite theirs (at first, sable antelopes, but now common elands live there) are active and very visible. And there’s the fact that she is the least dominant of the three lions, usually the last to eat and never interested in an argument.
In September of 2015, Makali gave birth to four gorgeous little bundles of fur. I featured them in last year’s Baby Boom! calendar, in the month of September. When members of the public first were able to see the young princes, it was in the company of only their Mom. But from the very first time I saw them with the whole family, it was quite obvious they all adored their “Auntie Lemon.” Unable to have any offspring herself, Lemon took to this role wholeheartedly: with patience, attentiveness, discipline when needed, and an abundance of love. When the cubs were active, Auntie Lemon was most often their first choice of playmate, plaything, or playground. For an animal that ordinarily might sleep up to 20 hours a day, Lemon was exceptionally good-natured about this. Well, for the most part, at least. When she’d had enough her ears would flatten down to her head and the corners of her upper lip would draw back. While she never actually bit or swatted any of her young charges, I don’t think any of them enjoyed being the target when her patience ran out. I posted a photo in that 2017 piece that backs up my conjecture; here it is again, just to save you the bother of looking it up:
When the tawny brothers, Lindy and Jerroh, were still alive and taking turns in the house and on exhibit with the white lion pride, Lemon and Jerroh could often be heard roaring and chuffing to each other. Even though they (as far as I know) never met in person, the two seemed to have a wonderful “long-distance” friendship. As I recall, this was really good for Jerroh after Lindy passed away in September of 2016; he was never completely alone as long as he had Lemon to answer him. After Jerroh died later that same year, I don’t recall hearing Lemon roar anymore at all, but I wouldn’t swear to that. Still, she seems pretty content these days, soaking up the sun, watching the elands, living the good life with her two best buddies, and it warms my heart every time I can spot her out on the exhibit.
In the caption for the photo at the top of the page, I mentioned that Lemon was one of several “Amazing Aunts” at the Zoo. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, because I am absolutely certain I’ll be returning to these stories in future calendar posts, but one of the great joys of some of the recent births has been watching the family dynamic shift and strengthen around the little ones when they have been born to non-solitary animals. When Dora, an Arctic wolf, had six pups in early May of this year, it was a nearly-overwhelming first litter for her. Fortunately, she had an amazing sister in the pack with her and Imiq, the alpha male, and Vera practically took charge of the entire situation. From rousing Dora from sleep when it was time to nurse, to looking after the entire brood while Dora took some “me” time for a while, to being the adult with the most patience (by a large margin) when it came to playing with – or simply putting up with – the young bundles of energy, Vera has set the Gold Standard for “Aunthood” from where I stand. And watching her rise to this new, super-important role in the pack where formerly she was really an outsider, has made for a fascinating summer for those of us lucky enough to witness it.
Sabi, a white rhino, has also been an amazing aunt. Her half-sister, Zohi, gave birth to the Zoo’s first white rhino calf of the 21st century on Christmas Eve of last year. From the very beginning, Theodore and Sabi were very interested in one another from afar, catching glimpses through the doors and windows of their winter holding, calling out and angling to get closer to each other (or, at least those are the stories I heard). When they finally did get to meet up, face-to-face, it did nothing to dampen Theo’s enthusiasm for his apparently limitlessly patient aunt. When Theo is off exploring his exhibit, Mom Zohi is never far behind him; but when he gets it in his head that he wants to be full of beans for a little while, he immediately seeks out Aunt Zohi and “encourages” her to join in. This little party of three has also been so much fun to watch this summer – and, as in the wolves, you can bet you’ll be hearing more about them next year.
I will leave you with a few more shots of Auntie Lemon, solo and with some or all of her family. Next month we travel out-of-province for a story about a very rare – and very important, to some – animal. Hope to see you then!