Spend a Sunday in the African Savannah

Jan 21, 2015

It is an ordinary Sunday in the African Savannah section of the Calgary Zoo. A group of visitors stands on tiptoes, feeding the two 15-foot-tall giraffes on a Behind-the-Scenes tour. A hippo swims lazily past little faces, pressed up against the glass tank. And, outside, four lions snooze in the sun while zookeeper Ryan Ball stares at them.

It’s the daily drama of life and animal behaviour that leaves Ryan in a perpetual state of wonder. One day (as it happened in late September, as a matter of fact) can bring the birth of two African crowned crane chicks—a first in more than 30 years for the zoo. Another can leave you witnessing a moment of such animal intelligence, that you “feel privileged , humbled and simply amazed,” says Ryan.

For Ryan, such a day came a few months ago when the zoo’s pride of lions was sorting out social hierarchies and had been hitting a bumpy patch in the process.

Just like their actions in the wild, the zoo’s four lions were sparring when they returned to their current enclosure, after being separated during the June 2013 flood. Tisha, the dominant female, was “fed up with the boys always growling and cuffing the girls,” explains Ryan, who has worked in the Savannah for four years. “So, one day as I was watching, she locked eyes with the alpha male, Aslan, and very slowly, she walked around the enclosure and stopped right in front of the two boys and layed down.

“Both Aslan and Baruti [the second ‘boy’] began rising up and shaking, nervously, in expectation of another aggressive encounter. That’s when Tisha very carefully, very deliberately, put her paw right on Aslan’s. He changed. Immediately the nervous growls ended, and he completely relaxed, as did Baruti. I attribute the cohesive pride they are today to Tisha’s first move.”

Ball says he loves the unpredictable moments that come with his job. And the fact that this is just an “ordinary” Sunday.

This winter, watch for Baruti, who’s particularly playful in the snow. As long as the temperature doesn’t dip below -15ºC, you’ll find the lions outside, basking on their heated rocks. The same applies to zebras that have inside-outside access. The rest of the Savannah’s animals remain indoors during the winter.

For more features like this one, check out our digital magazine, WILD LIFE!