The Lion Whis­perer – Steve Miles is a man who takes pride in his wildlife work

Susie Kear­ley chats to Steve Miles, a man who takes a pride in his wildlife work.

The People's Friend - - Contents - Natasha Jef­feries.

IT was May 25, 2016, and Steve Miles, lion keeper at Cotswold Wildlife Park, watched the li­on­ess as she pre­pared to give birth to triplets. Steve had de­vel­oped a spe­cial bond with the pride and had be­come known among col­leagues as some­thing of a “lion whis­perer”.

Rana, the male lion, and Kanha, the fe­male, came to the park from other col­lec­tions and were both five years old when their cubs were born.

They were part of a Euro­pean breed­ing pro­gramme and keep­ers hoped they’d bond and pro­duce a lit­ter of their own. Two years later, Kanha gave birth to three fe­male lion cubs: Kali, Sita and Sonika.

“In the wild, li­onesses rear their ba­bies in seclu­sion and will of­ten re­ject them if they’re dis­turbed,” Steve ex­plained, “so we kept con­tact to a min­i­mum. Rana, the male, re­mained in the neigh­bour­ing en­clo­sure but was never too far from the cubs. He took a great in­ter­est in his new fam­ily.

“Af­ter the first week, and af­ter a few wob­bly false starts, the cubs mas­tered the art of stand­ing on their own. Within two weeks they were walk­ing.

“A few weeks later, they left the house and went into the outdoor en­clo­sure. Mum was drag­ging them back in again to start with, but af­ter three or four weeks, they were go­ing in and out at will.”

At nine weeks old the cubs were suc­cess­fully in­tro­duced to their fa­ther, Rana, in the main outdoor en­clo­sure.

“We’d been mon­i­tor­ing them and there was no fric­tion be­tween the male and his fam­ily, so it was time to in­tro­duce them,” Steve said. “The mother went out to meet Dad first. She said ‘hello’ in the way lions do, and they got all lovey-dovey. It was like she was say­ing, ‘I missed you,’ and he felt the same.

“The signs were all good. Then the cubs came out and had a sniff. It went well, so they all got shut

into the main en­clo­sure as a fam­ily. The mother con­tin­ued to be very pro­tec­tive and was edgy to­wards the keep­ers. I had to build up her trust again. It took time, but we got there.

“The cubs were suck­ling their mother’s milk for about six months,” Steve con­tin­ued, “and af­ter three months they started eat­ing solid food as well.

“We gave the adults ex­tra food, and the mother would get hers and let the cubs have a go, then fin­ish it her­self. The fa­ther wouldn’t let the cubs any­where near his food.

“It’s the mother’s job to pro­vide food in the wild.

“At eight to ten months, the spe­cial treat­ment, where Mum shared her food, had passed and it was ev­ery lion for her­self. In the wild, they’d be taught to hunt by their mum.”

I caught up with Steve as

the lion cubs were reach­ing ado­les­cence.

“They’re grow­ing up fast and are like teenagers now,” he told me. “They’re spend­ing time with the fam­ily and try­ing to wake Dad, jump­ing all over him, while he says, get off!

“They’re def­i­nitely more in­de­pen­dent now; they sit on a sep­a­rate plat­form from Mum and Dad and are spend­ing more time apart from their par­ents. Kanha will al­ways be a pro­tec­tive mother, but now they’re off ex­plor­ing and have more in­de­pen­dent lives.

“Nor­mally by the time they reach eigh­teen months a zoo would be look­ing at mov­ing them to other zoos and on to breed­ing pro­grammes.

“We plan to do that, too, but there are other op­tions: we’ve got three fe­male cubs, so if they don’t come into sea­son – it can be pre­vented with med­i­ca­tion – then we can keep them for a bit longer.

“Ideally, we’d like to find new homes for them, though, where they’ll be paired up to breed.” n

Steve and Rana share a mo­ment.

Any­one can have a bad hair day . . .

One of the birth­day girls in­ves­ti­gates . . . Dad helps to open the presents. s. e ri ff e J a h s a t N

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