- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2005

NORFOLK — She’s a pussycat of a gal who likes guys with lots of facial hair, enjoys rock climbing and isn’t shy about tearing into a hunk of steak.

After many months searching for a girlfriend for Mramba, a 2-year-old lion, it appears that Virginia Zoo officials have found a match.

Zola, a 1-year-old African lioness, was donated by the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro. She was transported to Norfolk last month and quarantined for a month.

Although the two have not yet shared the same space, Mramba was spotted just days after the quarantine ended licking Zola’s face through the bars separating their indoor dens.

Before the two can meet without barriers, Zola needs time to become accustomed to her new home. The 180-pound cub can be seen by the public for about an hour after opening each morning as she explores her outdoor exhibit. She has played with a tire and a ball and climbed on the bottom tier of rocks, but mostly she stays close to the door of her den, sometimes pacing in front of it.

Zookeeper Charlene Wright thinks Zola just wants to stick close to Mramba.

Despite early signs of compatibility, it will be two more weeks before Zola and Mramba come face to face.

Zoo director Lewis Greene said introducing unfamiliar lions can be tricky.

“Not everyone you meet you get along with; it’s no different in animals,” Mr. Greene said.

It only gets more complicated when animal instincts such as dominance and mating are tossed in the mix, he added.

Zoo officials don’t have to look far for an example. The zoo’s third lion, 6-year-old Kalisa, does not get along with other animals.

Kalisa killed her first exhibit-mate over a duck that flew into their yard, and she later tussled with a Grant’s zebra that somehow managed to escape from his exhibit. Most recently, she ripped Mramba’s ear through the bars separating their dens when he tried to play with her.

Despite their experiences with Kalisa, zoo officials have high hopes for Zola and Mramba. They’re both young, and it’s easier to introduce lions before they reach sexual maturity. Plus, they’ve rubbed up against each other through the bars and have not shown signs of aggression.

“Right now, we’re pretty encouraged,” Mr. Greene said.

Just in case, keepers will be standing by with hoses, air horns and fire extinguishers to distract the two if anything goes wrong during their meeting.

“Lions like to work their quarrels out,” Miss Wright said, adding that a limited amount of aggression would be allowed before keepers would step in to prevent any serious injury.

“We feel it will go smoothly,” she said.

If a couple of weeks of behind-the-scenes introductions go well, zookeepers will start to put the pair on public display, which could be as early as a month from now.

Don’t expect lion cubs for a while, though. Male lions reach sexual maturity in five to seven years, and female lions generally reach it in four to five years.

Keepers will continue to keep Kalisa separate, despite the younger two lions’ interest in her.

Mr. Greene said the zoo is prepared to care for Kalisa as long as necessary, but he has let it be known that she’s available to any other facility willing to house her.

All three lions will be on public display individually on a rotating basis, at least until Zola and Mramba can be together.

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