Kijani, Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s lion cub, melted hearts Saturday as he frolicked around his outdoors enclosure, his mother Kiki keeping a close eye on him.
The nearly 16-week-old lion attracted a crowd of about 100, many of whom watched in open-mouthed astonishment and who had no idea they would be seeing the short, stocky cub making his first public outing in the African Adventure exhibit.
Lion fans and other visitors alike gathered under a bridge at the entrance to the lion exhibit. Just after 11 a.m., lioness Kiki walked out, closely followed by Kijani, the target of all eyes and many cameras.
Kijani’s public debut was delayed until Saturday because his appearances are limited by the weather, zoo curator Nicole Presley said. The temperature must be at or above 50 degrees.
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“At some point, he had to come out,” Presley said. She added that Kiki must have felt more comfortable being out in the main area Saturday than in recent weeks because her cub was with her – even if Kijani did persist in using her tail as a toy and often outran her.
In the past, Kiki didn’t stay outdoors long “because she wants to get back to the cub,” Presley said.
Once they crossed the gate, the mother and son wasted no time in wowing their small audience.
It was about 49 degrees and they were saying that they were going to get ready. I thought, ‘Oh gosh, are they going to do it? Are they going to do it?’ and they did. It was amazing.
Desiree McDougal, kindergarten teacher
“He went up on top of the rock within three minutes,” Presley said. Many compared the sight to that of Simba from the animated movie “The Lion King.”
Kiki and Kijani scampered around for several minutes in the sun. At one point Kijani went down into a moat, where he remained until his mom fished him out. Some observers feared for him when they didn’t see him come out for a few minutes, but everything was fine.
The show went on for nearly an hour before mother and child settled down to rest on the ground. Presley said the cub usually goes back in at 2 p.m.
Many more people could have packed the viewing areas. But Presley said Kanji’s debut wasn’t publicly announced in advance because it was better not to overwhelm him. Kanji was born Oct. 11.
The next time Kijani will come out and play is anyone’s guess, but Presley said the gates will open every day at 11 a.m.
Desiree McDougal, 53, got to the zoo as soon as it opened. She had heard from a few people that the golden-brown Kijani would make his first appearance Saturday.
“I really literally did plan just to come here,” she said.
McDougal sat under the bridge about 9:30 a.m. and frequently checked the weather on her phone.
To see something so exciting happening, then you get to see it through
Desiree McDougal, kindergarten teacher
Close to 11 a.m., “It was about 49 degrees and they were saying that they were going to get ready,” McDougal said. “I thought, ‘Oh gosh, are they going to do it? Are they going to do it?’ and they did. It was amazing.”
McDougal said she would be at the zoo all day doing research to take back to her kindergarten class at Terry Elementary School in Selma. The class is transitioning from learning about Arctic animals to mammals, like Kijani.
“Of course, every one of them wanted to go with me,” she said. “They know how excited I was.”
The class is planning a trip to the zoo in March. McDougal said she was sending pictures of the lion sighting and other places at the zoo to the parents of her students. A baby white rhino born Tuesday was next on her list.
But on Saturday, seeing Kijani, whose name in Swahili means warrior, gave McDougal a chance to reflect on things she has seen, and made her think about how the lion cub adds further meaning to the zoo.
“To see something so exciting happening, then you get to see it through … 5-year-olds’ eyes, it’s all new again,” McDougal said. “This is what our zoo brings to us.”