With paws the size of grapefruits, razor sharp canines and muscular bodies already tipping the 100-pound mark, Luke Weatherhead knew the time had come to say good bye to Leroy and Levanna, two 9-month-old African Lion cubs Weatherhead hand-raised in his family’s basement.
The pair, a male and a female, was born last October at Southwick’s Zoo, but were abandoned soon after birth by their mother. Weatherhead, 24, a zookeeper at the Mendon, Mass.– based zoo, stepped in as the cubs’ surrogate mother, spending most of last winter bottle-feeding them and watching them grow into healthy, precocious young lions whose hunting instincts were becoming all too obvious.
“Not only were they ripping up the carpet, but they were playing way too rough with Emma, my golden retriever,” says Weatherhead, son of Southwick Zoo owner Betsey R. Brewer. “I love them and I was sad to see them go, but at the same time I realized they were wild animals and needed their own habitat at the zoo.”
The bond between them, though, hasn’t diminished.
Today, when Weatherhead approaches their caged enclosure, the wide-eyed cubs practically stumble over one another in the rush to greet him. Standing up on their hind legs, the cubs vigorously rub their heads against Weatherhead’s outstretched hands, licking his fingers.
Weatherhead is a lot like those two lion cubs because, he too, spent most of his childhood growing up at Southwick’s, a privately owned family-operated zoo that is home to more than 500 wild animals and more than 100 varied species. The grandson of Southwick’s Zoo President Justine Brewer – the daughter of zoo founder Justin Southwick — Weatherhead began working with the zoo animals at the age of 12. His love for wildlife led him to the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth where he earned a degree in biology last year.
Today, Weatherhead is a zookeeper and staff member at the zoo, which is gearing up for its annual Zoobabies Day on Sunday, an annual event that gives visitors a chance to meet new animal babies recently born at the zoo, including various primates, pot belly pigs, and kanagaroos, a baby marmoset, and recently birthed mandrill and yak, among others.
"It's always exciting when new animals come to Southwick's, but it is especially nice to watch them grow up from the beginning," says Betsey Brewer.
Starting at 10 a.m., visitors will be able to meet the baby marmoset at "Ask the Zoo Crew." Marmosets are a species of monkey which measure to be only eight inches long as adults. This event will be followed by an 11 a.m. "Meet the Binturong" session. The binturong resembles a cross between a bear and a cat.
At noon, visitors will have the chance to see the two lion cubs at their habitat near Parakeet Landing. Along with getting to know the new faces, visitors will have a chance to give treats to baby primates at 2 p.m. A recently birthed mandrill and yak will also be available for guests to observe.
There will also be special events including a scavenger hunt and other activities.
Visitors will also get a chance to meet Katie and Logan, a pair of year-old African Cheetahs who came to Southwick’s a month ago from another zoo facility. The cheetahs are now exhibited by the African Plains, where they are able check out their other neighbors, Ankole cattle and sika deer. The zoo hopes that eventually they will produce cubs.
“They’ve adjusted well and our visitors have really enjoyed seeing them,” says Justine Brewer.
The cheetah can run faster any other land animal — as fast as 70 to 75 mph in short bursts, covering distances up to 1,600 feet, and has the ability to accelerate from zero to 62 mph in three seconds.
According to Weatherhead, the cheetah is built for speed. It has long, slim, muscular legs, a small, rounded head set on a long neck, a flexible spine, a deep chest, non-retractable claws, special pads on its feet for traction and a long, tail for balance.
Woodhead is one of up to eight zookeepers working at Southwick’s on any given day. His work day begins at 7:30 a.m. with general chores followed by a lap around the zoo to make sure cages and enclosures are secure.
“After that, it varies on different days,” he says.
Feeding the zoo’s residents is another of Weatherhead’s jobs.
“The big cats will eat 10 pounds of raw meat every three days, while the cheetahs will eat three pounds of raw meat every day,” he says.
As for his favorite African Lion cubs, Weatherhead says while he loves and admires them, he would never turn his back on any big cat.
“The one thing I’ve learned over the years is that you should never trust a wild animal,” he says. “They may look cute and cuddly at times, but they will never lose their wild instincts and will always be dangerous and unpredictable.”
Southwick's Zoo, 2 Southwick St., Mendon, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. In order to participate in Zoobabies Day on Sunday, visitors simply need to purchase a regular admission ticket.
Admission to the zoo is $20 for adults (13 years or older) and $15 for children and seniors and free for children 2 years of age or under.
For more information, call the zoo at 1-800-258-9182 or visit southwickszoo.com.