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