Just 37cm at birth and rejected by her mother, survival seemed unlikely for Belfast Zoo cub Lily... until a kindly keeper stepped in
One of the world's rarest big cats is returning to Belfast Zoo after being hand reared by a keeper.
Baby Barbary lion Lily was rescued from her zoo enclosure in June after she was rejected by her mother Fidda at birth, and reared by keeper Linda Frew in her home.
A second lion cub born in the litter wasn't so lucky. It was killed by its mother - but Lily escaped with only a few scratches after keepers stepped in and removed her from the lion enclosure.
The pair of cubs were the first Barbary lions ever born in Ireland - to the delight of staff at the zoo.
The sub-species is extinct in the wild and only around 40 animals remain in the European captive population, cared for by 12 zoos across the world.
At birth Lily weighed 1.4 kilos and was 37cm in length, just longer than a standard ruler. Lily's birth expands the Barbary lion group at Belfast Zoo to four.
In the crucial weeks after birth, Lily was cared for round the clock by keeper Linda Frew, who endured countless sleepless nights to feed the tiny cub every two hours.
"Fidda had two lion cubs and she rejected both. She killed one and we were able to get Lily out before she harmed her," she said.
"It is quite usual with the first litter. Even in the wild that would happen, but at least we managed to save this one."
Lily was fed 20ml of milk every two hours and progressed to 40ml within just two weeks. She was weaned onto solid food at six weeks, when she consumed a pound of mince every other day.
"For the first six weeks she stayed in our bedroom. Then we moved her into the conservatory with a baby monitor and a heat lamp to keep her warm. At nine weeks we brought her back to the zoo," Linda said
" She's a lovely wee thing but you have to remember she's a lion - all of a sudden you could feel the strength coming in, the muscles starting to develop and the scratches were starting to break the skin."
Lily brought a new companion back to the zoo with her - Keepa, a Japanese Akita dog, who will help her grow up with animal traits and behaviours and not those of her foster mother.
"He will be there until the stage when she's bigger than him. At the moment he's getting the upper hand but when she starts getting the upper hand, within six months to a year, he'll come back to me," Linda said.
"It seems to be working quite well. She's starting to behave more like a lion and she's starting to get more aggressive, which is what you want."
Lily has yet to go on public display at the zoo but visitors will be able to see her from mid- September.
They will also be able to chart her progress by viewing the latest photos and videos at www.belfastcity.gov.uk/lily. All videos and photos are downloadable and will be updated weekly.
Lily will also be the star of two forthcoming TV programmes, the first of which, Living with Lily, airs on UTV at 8pm on Monday.
The second programme will be shown on the Discovery channel, probably in early 2008.