Director learns just how artificial zoo life is for predators.

Potawatomi Zoo

Stories from

March 2, 2005

OKAVANGO DELTA, Botswana — Some people have the impression that predators have an easy life, sleeping away most of the day, lifting their head long enough to hunt a gazelle or a zebra for dinner.

But you must be in peak physical shape. You have to hunt down and kill your prey. You have to find a mate, reproduce and further your genes. Finally, you have to defend your territory.

As a development director for the Potawatomi Zoological Society, I came to the southern African nation of Botswana to do research for an upcoming African exhibit at the zoo. I’ve worked in zoos for more than 15 years, but it really didn’t sink in about how “cutthroat” the wild is until I observed it in person.

The Moremi Wildlife Reserve in Botswana is home to many predators, both large and small. Within a half-hour of my first game drive, I saw my first African predator.

A group of lionesses and their grown cubs downed a small hippo and were feeding on the corpse. The smell was horrific, but it was definitely worth the pungent aroma to see lions tearing apart the carcass and competing for the food.

As the lions were feeding, I realized that my experience viewing lions in a zoo was a bit artificial. Our two lions are brought inside every night and fed ground meat — which they obviously don’t have to hunt for or kill.

The next day we revisited the hippo corpse and found the lioness and cubs were gone. In their place were three male lions that were part of the same pride.

Visitors to our zoo often mention how our big male Amur Tiger looks lonely. The truth of the matter is that tigers, jaguars, leopards, and pumas are all solitary.

The job of the male lion is to defend the territory from encroaching males while the lionesses do the majority of the hunting. In all likelihood, the three males were probably brothers who grew up together and took over this pride from an aging male.

Zoo life is so different

As I watched the brothers rest and feed in the shade, I couldn’t help but think of our two lions, Onyo and Tango, back at Potawatomi Zoo. Our lions are also brothers. They were born at Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, Fla., just more than three years ago.

They are growing boys. Within the next few years, we would like to raise the money to renovate their exhibit and double their living space.

Even though our lions were born in a zoo, they still retain their wild instincts.

Our cat keeper, Betsy Court, tells me that in the morning when she enters the building, the lions give her a friendly greeting. But during the lions’ afternoon feeding, they will show aggression toward the keepers.

Our zookeepers also provide all of our cats with daily activities to enrich and occupy their lives. And zoo animals receive veterinary care and reach an old age they would never see in the wild.

In 2001, Potawatomi Zoo had a lioness pass away that was more than 20 years old. That is an unheard-of age for a wild lion, which is considered old at the age of 10.

The hyena

Lions and hyenas are natural enemies. They will compete for food and chase each other out of a territory.

Back in Africa, we watched as a pack of hyenas staked their claim from a few hundred yards away from the hippo corpse.

Hyenas will scavenge from kills made by lions. In large groups, they can actually drive a pride of lions away from a kill.

The hyena is the No. 2 predator of the African plains, behind the lion.

Hyenas are capable of running down and killing prey such as zebra and wildebeest. They have large muzzles with very powerful jaws. They use this power to crush the bones of the animals they feed on.

Female hyenas are the dominant animals of the pack, in comparison to lions, where the male is dominant. Female hyenas produce male hormones, which make them larger and more aggressive than males. The competition among females is so fierce that shortly after birth a female hyena pup will kill fellow female pups to become the dominant litter animal.

The hyena actually does make a laughing sound when they are interacting and especially when they are feeding. Although hyenas physically resemble dogs, they are actually closely related to the mongoose.

Our camp was visited nightly by a group of hyenas that would eat anything they could find. My chalet hut was closest to the kitchen. About 10 p.m. one evening, I heard a big thumping sound near the kitchen. It was a pair of hyenas trying to get into the pad-locked freezer to eat the meat in it.

The wild dog

On my last day in Botswana, I was treated to a rare sight: We found an entire pack of wild dogs, 15 members in all.

Just put these numbers together: The African wild dog is a critically endangered species with fewer than 5,600 left in Africa, making it one of the rarest carnivores in the world.

Factors contributing to these low numbers are loss of habitat, hunting by farmers (who fear the dogs will eat the livestock) and diseases such as rabies and distemper.

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