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Why did a zoo lion kill her longtime mate?

By: Laura Goldman From Care2

Zuri and Nyack had been mates for eight years at the Indianapolis Zoo. The two African lions shared housing and had three cubs together. According to zookeepers, they never were aggressive toward one another.

Yet one October morning before the zoo opened, employees heard unusual roaring coming from the lions’ enclosure. When they got there, Zuri had Nyack pinned down, her mouth wrapped around his neck. Nyack died of suffocation before the employees could save him.

Lion experts are surprised by what Zuri did.

“I’ve never heard of a female attacking a male,” Craig Packer, professor and director of the University of Minnesota’s Lion Research Center, told the Indianapolis Star. “Extreme aggression of females to males is definitely unique.”

In the wild, he said, groups of female lions may attack strange male lions, but they usually only wound them.

Dr. Paul Funston, Southern Africa regional director for the wild cat conservation organization Panthera, told Live Science it’s not uncommon for lions to attack and kill each other, mainly over territory and mates. However, he said that in his 26 years of field work, he’d never heard of a lone female attacking a lone male.

What could have made Zuri decide to kill her mate? One possibility is a sexual encounter gone wrong, Funston told Live Science. The couple’s cubs are now three years old, a time when they can start taking care of themselves. (Their two male cubs live in a separate enclosure at the zoo, but the female lives with her parents and witnessed the killing.) It’s also the time when the parents of grown cubs begin mating again.

Nyack may have been too sexually aggressive with Zuri, Funston said, or perhaps there had been growing tension between the two lions that came to a deadly head that morning.

Zuri, who’s 12 years old, and Nyack, who was 10, were about the same size, so Packer suggested that another cause may have been the female domineering her mate. He called this an “odd combination” since female lions are usually submissive to males.

“We may never uncover what provoked this incident,” David Hagan, curator for the Indiana Zoo’s lion exhibit, told the Indianapolis Star.

But why would Zuri kill Nyack so viciously instead of just chasing him away or, at worst, wounding him? It “might be the result of an animal being in captivity for a long period of time and choosing to behave in an unusual way,” Funston said.

This makes a lot of sense. Although zoos may claim to play a necessary role in conservation and education, keeping animals in captivity is unnatural and cruel. Being forced to live in too-small enclosures can harm an animal’s health and result in animals exhibiting unusual behavior like pacing, head bobbing, sitting motionless – and, perhaps, even murdering their longtime mates.

Zuri and her cubs are doing fine after the killing, Hagan told the Indianapolis Star. To determine the next steps to take, the Indianapolis Zoo is working with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP) program, which oversees the population management of some species in accredited zoos.

Hagan said the zoo hasn’t requested a new male. “Lions are social animals, so it’s important to have a group of lions here for longtime health,” he told the Indianapolis Star.

Here’s an idea: For Zuri’s longtime health and to prevent future unusual behavior, she (and her three cubs) should be removed from the Indianapolis Zoo and sent to live in a sanctuary. If you agree, please sign and share this petition.

If you want to make a difference on an issue you find deeply troubling, you too can create a Care2 petition, and use this handy guide to get started. You’ll find Care2’s vibrant community of activists ready to step up and help you.

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