Last week our lion cubs were in the news as they celebrated their first birthday. Besides being quite cute with their Mohawk manes, extremely popular with visitors and very "rough and tumble" with one another, they also are very important animals in the captive breeding population for lions. As the second generation to a grandmother who was born in the wild, they represent a genetic line that offers valuable diversity to the African lion breeding program. As one of many species that are managed by a Species Survival Plan (SSP) committee within the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), lions are managed by experts in accredited zoos to optimize the health of captive populations.

Although lions are not endangered in the wild, their numbers are declining, and zoos are dedicated to carefully managing captive populations as a safety net for the species. Our current litter of cubs was the result of a breeding recommendation between our female, Amali, and Razi, a male from the Denver Zoo. The two male cubs from this litter will move to the Dallas Zoo this month, per the SSP. As they age, one or both may remain in Dallas or be transferred to another zoo, and may or may not be selected to breed, depending on population needs.

Not all animals are selected to breed, particularly if their blood lines are already well represented. Animals not needed immediately for breeding are more easily held in groups of all males or females. Without the opposite sex present, dominance and competition issues are often reduced or eliminated. When individuals are recommended for breeding, zoos work cooperatively to get them together. Potential mates in all species are carefully paired based on genetic makeup, the number of closely related animals in zoo collections and other factors.

Another issue critical to breeding success is space. When we agree to breed our animals, we also commit to holding the offspring for several years, and that requires ample space. For example, even though we have been approved to allow Razi and Amali to breed again, we need to wait until we have sufficient den space to accommodate three adults, the remaining female cub and a new litter. We're also making preparations for our lion pride to be able to use the former tiger yard for additional outdoor space.

Captive breeding programs in zoos help to supplement "in-situ" (in the wild) programs conducted by zoo researchers to study and conserve wild animals in their native habitats. By keeping a healthy and genetically diverse population in captivity, we maintain a hedge against the loss of wild populations, which may be adversely affected by habitat destruction, disease or natural disasters that could wipe out large segments of a population. Zoo animals are more easily observed than wild ones, and information gained through daily observations and veterinary care can benefit wild animals.

Animals managed with SSP's are typically threatened or endangered in the wild. There are approximately 115 SSP's managed by staff at AZA institutions. More common species are managed through Population Management Plans or PMP's. Here at Lee Richardson Zoo, we display 19 SSP species and will soon add a 20th. Our SSP animals include elephants, sloth bears, addax, swift fox, Amur and snow leopards, lemurs, black rhinos, siamang, red pandas, jaguars and more. Two young maned wolves, also an SSP species, will arrive this spring to take up residence in our South American Pampas. Of the 322 species managed through PMP's, we display another 20-plus species, including rheas, cranes, otters, birds, anteater, flamingos, swans and kangaroos.

Our staff is anxiously anticipating the birth of an SSP pairing this month. The pygmy slow loris is a primitive nocturnal primate with large eyes and a very slow gait. They are displayed in the nocturnal building in Wild Asia. With the parents weighing just a pound or two, you can be sure the infant will be quite tiny when it arrives. Our staff has done extensive research to be ready for any unusual circumstances that may arise when the infant is born, as it will be the first taste of parenthood for both parents and for our staff.

Animal management programs are just one way that zoos contribute to wildlife conservation. By displaying animals and providing educational programs and information about our collection, we hope to create a better appreciation for the Earth's diversity in our visitors. Funds generated through our duck food dispensers support conservation programs around the globe. Our staff supports research projects conducted by colleagues (submitting photos, observations, biological materials, etc.) to help increase our knowledge of our animals, and thus improve the quality of care we provide for them. So as you can see, there's a lot more to the zoo than just animals displayed for our guests' viewing pleasure. We actively work toward conserving the animals we display every day.