Trainer Tonya Matelski opened her palm as wide as it would go, then gave a gentle "open … open wide" command to Vulcan, one of four new lions who will debut Friday at Utah’s Hogle Zoo.
On the other side of a chain link fence, the 3-year-old wrinkled his nose. He growled.
But then he opened up long enough for Matelski to get a good look at his teeth, front and rear. In return, Vulcan got a horse meatball stuffed with supplements and nutrients — licking his chops vigorously after devouring the tender morsel in a powerful bite.
"His attitude is the same as a teenage human boy. Sometimes he wants to train, sometimes he doesn’t," said Matelski, who came to Hogle Zoo in January from Memphis to work with the lions in the zoo’s African Savanna exhibit, which will open in late May with giraffes, zebras, nyalas, ostriches and guinea fowl.
Vulcan and his brother, Baron, were introduced Friday to the news media along with a pair of 2-year-old sisters, Seyla and Nabu.
Eventually, zoo spokeswoman Erica Hansen said, "we’d love to have cubs."
But not yet. "The boys are interested in the girls," she said, "but the girls are scared of the boys."
Hogle Zoo has been without lions for almost a decade. After the last lion died of old age, Hansen said, the zoo held off on bringing in replacements until completing the African Savanna exhibit.
The males came from a zoo in Montgomery, Ala., the females from Woodland Park near Seattle. They’ve been in quarantine since making their road trips to Salt Lake City, getting accustomed to their new surroundings and the trainers who give them food for following instructions.
"Feeding is a way of building trust and relationships," Hansen said, just before Matelski emerged from behind a fence and called Vulcan’s name. He rose up from his princely perch atop a hilltop boulder and sprinted to the fence for a mid-morning snack.
"You’re my good boy, you are," she cooed before launching into a series of voice commands and hand gestures that got Vulcan to roll on his side, showing his belly and the broad bottoms of his paws, to sit down and to stand tall on his hind legs, his 8-foot-plus frame towering over the 5-foot-3 Matelski.
The females, still pre-teens in human years, were more demure with their snacks of cow ribs. Each picked up a rib left out in their pen and carried it into the shade. They’re pretty cautious while beginning to display their individual personalities, said trainer Valerie Schubert, who came from Winston, Ore.
The lions have a lot of growing to do in the next year before courting begins, but Matelski said the animals’ character already is intact — keeping her on her toes.
"You can train a big cat," she noted, "but you can never tame them."
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