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SOS Rhino : In the News : In zoo tussle, lioness met its match in zebra

In zoo tussle, lioness met its match in zebra

Feb. 2, 2005 09:25 AM

NORFOLK, Va. - In the wild, where zebras are prey for lions, Zeke might have been doomed. But at the Virginia Zoo, the 4-year-old Grant's zebra did more than just survive a brief scuffle with a lioness - he apparently held his own.

The encounter happened just before closing Monday after Zeke somehow managed to escape from his exhibit and wound up in the lion area. By the time zoo staff arrived, the animals had retreated to opposite corners of the enclosure.

Zeke had several claw marks.

Kalisa, a 6-year-old African lioness, was wet and muddy.

There were no witnesses to the start of the clash, so zoo officials are still trying to piece together how the zebra escaped and what provoked the confrontation.

Neither animal is a stranger to conflict. In October, Zeke is believed to have chased a 32-year-old white rhino into a moat, where she died. An examination found the rhino had drowned. In July 2002, Kalisa killed her first roommate, another female lion, over a wild duck that flew into their yard.

The latest incident began when Zeke escaped the exhibit yard he shares with his mate and their daughter.

The zebra area is separated from the lion area by a 6- to 8-foot-high vertical drop and a moat, measuring about 8 feet wide and 10 feet deep. On the zebra's end, there's a rocky ledge along the drop-off.

Zoo director Lewis Greene said zebras and other hoofed animals are deterred by rocky terrain. Zeke braved the rocks, then either fell or jumped from the ledge into the moat, he said.

"What enticed him to go over there, we have no idea," Greene said.

Zeke ended up in the moat. Greene surmises that Kalisa charged into the moat and went after Zeke and the two tussled either in the water or after they emerged onto dry land.

A zoo visitor noticed a zebra in the lion area and alerted staff.

"I think Zeke either kicked or bit Kalisa because she was keeping her distance," Greene said. "It was like she was saying she had enough and this guy wasn't as easy pickings as she thought."

Zebra are prey to lions in the wild. These two were raised in captivity.

"That's one of the reasons Zeke's OK today - nobody taught Kalisa that," Greene said.

Still, keepers needed to safely separate the animals. Attempts to coax the lioness indoors were unsuccessful, so the zoo veterinarian used a tranquilizer dart to subdue her. Zeke was then led out of the lion exhibit.

Zeke already had been prohibited from sharing the exhibit space with the rhinos after his last show of aggression - the zebras and remaining two rhinos alternate times in the yard. Now, Greene said, Zeke will not be allowed in the outdoor exhibit for fear he'll escape again.

Still, Greene does not find fault with the exhibit's design, which he said is similar to many other zoo African exhibits. "That doesn't mean an animal like Zeke couldn't come along and push the envelope," he said.

Ultimately, Zeke will be put on the zoo's surplus list and will be shipped to another zoo when the right match comes forward, Greene said.

"You really can't look at an animal like Zeke and say he's good or bad," he said. "He's just being a male zebra. Females tend to be a lot calmer and easier-going - they don't have that stallion attitude."

Because of Kalisa's past aggressiveness, she has never been allowed on exhibit with the zoo's new 19-month-old male lion Mramba, who arrived in the fall. Greene said the zoo has already been looking for a new home for Kalisa so a mate can be brought in for Mramba.

"We can do so much to protect the animals, but there are certainly things we cannot control we cannot control their behavior," Greene said.

"I'm proud of my staff. They responded appropriately and we had a little bit of luck. Things could have gone bad."

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