WASHINGTON – Lions,starlets and biologists gathered at the Smithsonian National Zoo Thursday in a scene that looked like a mix between the red carpet and “Born Free.”
To commemorate the birth of two new lion litters and a donation by 20th Century Fox for cat conservation,two actors from Hollywood’s upcoming installment of the Chronicles of Narnia series came to the zoo to name one of the seven lion cubs.
Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley,whose “Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader” hits theaters Friday,were treated to a behind-the-scenes look at the Great Cats exhibit,and selected a lion cub to name Aslan,after the movie and book series’ principal feline,also a lion.
“We’ve had a long trip coming into New York,with a lot of publicity,but I think this has definitely been the highlight,” Keynes said.
The actors were allowed to name the lion as a token of thanks from the zoo to 20th Century Fox,which recently donated an undisclosed amount to the zoo for research,education and conserving great cats. After christening the cub,the actors,National Zoo Director Dennis Kelly,and cat expert and biologist Craig Saffoe met with reporters and a gaggle of entertainment photographers.
“It’s very important for our hopes in building a genetically sustainable population to import new blood every so often,” Saffoe said. He added that the pride’s three adult lions “are especially important” for the North American population of African lions because they came directly from Africa.
While Aslan wasn’t present for the news conference due to temperatures in the lower 30s,his mother,Nababiep,and father,Luke,were in the yard along with the other adult in the pride,Shera. Last month,the National Zoo launched a video contest with The Washington Post to name the rest of the two litters. Kelly said the naming ceremony Thursday and the video contest helped get people involved with the animals,one of the National Zoo’s main goals.
Luke fathered all seven cubs. Four cubs were born in August to Shera,and Aslan and his two siblings were born the following month to Nababiep. Naba also gave birth to a cub this summer,but it died a month later of pneumonia. It will be a while yet before the public can get a look at the cubs.
Kelly said much about lion reproduction remains a mystery.
“Our experts aren’t positive on how long the gestation period for lions is,” he said. “So that gift and these lions here today are going to continue our work on lion and great cat research.”
Kelly said Aslan,like the other new members of the National Zoo’s pride,will remain at the zoo for two to three years. He then will be sent to other North American zoos to breed and “play a key role in conservation as an ambassador for his species.”