Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Big-Cat Love in San Francisco

July 29, 2011

This week, I want to share a photographic collage, made into a mini-video, of two lions at the San Francisco Zoo. It’s short, and I hope you’ll watch it twice. Let us dive right in to an initial viewing:

Beautiful, yes? Tunya and Sukari are keenly oriented towards, and tender with, each other. We sense a back-and-forth dance of affection between them. A feeling is conveyed also of the individuality of these two big cats, and this is thanks to the skill and sensitivity of the photographer, Kim Forwood (who nonetheless playfully calls the pair “Tukari”--think “Brangelina” in the human world!)

Even at a first look, we know from these photographs that we are peeking into the lives of two vibrant, distinct personalities. We are looking at Tunya and Sukari, not generic “lions”.

But see what happens when we learn—from Kim—something more about this pair.

Back in 1997, when he was not yet one year of age, Tunya arrived at the San Francisco Zoo from a breeding facility in South Africa. For the next six years, he lived with two females, Amanzi and Kita, who had came also from the same facility. Kita died in 2003, and Amanzi was paired with another male at the Zoo (a decision based on genetic profiles for healthy breeding patterns in captivity). Tunya then lived with one of his offspring, but she too was transferred elsewhere.

Enter Sukari! In 2009, Sukari arrived in San Francisco from another Zoo. “Tunya was alone for over a month,” Kim notes, “while Sukari was in quarantine. He was very lonely. Once Sukari was moved to the Lion House and was settling in, Tunya was able to see her mesh-to-mesh and was instantly taken with her.” Sukari was shy, but in part due to enrichment efforts by Kim and others, she eventually yielded to her own sense of curiosity and explored her new home.

And the two cats bonded. Lions are hardly monogamous creatures, as they of course live naturally in prides; Kim jokes that Tunya “still pines for Amanzi,” who is, interestingly enough, Sukari’s maternal sister! He stares at Amanzi, for example, in the nearby enclosure. Yet this pair, Tunya and Sukari, clearly enjoy each other.

“Sukari is a lot younger than Tunya,” Kim says, “so she is more playful. Tunya is the master of the nap.”

On the day this summer that Kim took the photographs, Tunya was at first asleep, and Sukari was staring at him. Here is where the sequence begins that we have already watched one time. As we see in frame 1, “Tunya got up and moved towards Sukari,” Kim recounts. Sukari looked at her partner and rolled over one her side. “I think he went in for a face sniff and she looked up at him (frame 2),” Kim continues. Tunya went over and sat near Sukari, and they exchanged gazes (frame 3). When Kim referred to Sukari’s “blinky eyes” as part of this gazing, I knew exactly what she meant, from the lowered slow-blinking eyes of affection some of my cats give me.

When Sukari rolled up then sat up again, Tunya licked her head (frame 4). Then, “it appears that Sukari stopped the love session,” Kim comments. “You can see she has her paw flat out in action towards him (frame 5). Then they both started vocalizing, but never in an aggressive manner (frames 6 and 7).” Sukari turned her body away, and Tunya kissed her promptly, ending this encounter in a relaxed way (frame 8).

For me, at least, appreciation of the lions’ “dance of love” deepened immeasurably with the added knowledge of their age difference and Tunya’s long history with other females. With the back-story available, we see, feel about, and feel for these animals at a deeper level (a point I made also in my May 27th blog about zoos; see link at left).

Now, I invite you to watch the sequence a second (and maybe a third!) time:

Special thanks to Kim for sharing her knowledge and love of Tunya and Sukari.


  1. July 29, 2011 11:46 AM EDT
    Thank you Barbara for the wonderful highlighting of my Tunyaman and Suki! They are most precious and adored Zoo friends :) ... You did a wonderful job telling their story. I am so thankful for Sukari, she is the perfect match for Tunya. They are very funny together. Her watching him nap is beginning to be quite a thing, as I notice I have several photos of this. I will continue to capture this and possibly make a mini movie of this. You know she is thinking, "Yes we (cats) like to nap, but this is ridiculous!" LOL! Love them! ... I love how the "Blinky Eyes" is universal in cats (of all sizes), as a greeting with positive emotion. Whether it your own cat, sending a signal of love to you, a Big Cat sending a signal of love to their companion, or a Big Cat saying Hi to a friend. I have had this happen with our Big Cat Zoo friends. The acknowledgment is amazing. One of the Tigers even gave me a hat trick(three)of head butts through a glass window! ... Thank you again for wanting to include my vignette of Tunari, in your wonderful blog! Cheers!
    - Kim Forwood
  2. July 29, 2011 1:11 PM EDT
    You know I was already quite taken by these photos before you made this beautiful video compilation! Watching it this way, I was especially struck by Tunya, whose face seems to really express that love and intensity. Not that Sukari is indifferent, but it is most visible in him. I have never seen such expressiveness in big cats, I'm one of those "tourists" who seems to catch them sleeping and get bored. Thank goodness for people like Kim, who relates to big cats like I do with gorillas, with extended visits, personal relationships, and long-term knowledge of their lives.
    - Joanne Tanner
  3. July 29, 2011 7:39 PM EDT
    Joanne- Thank you for the kudos and observations! Yep, I do watch these Big Cats alot :) As another person who has seen them in person and has the op to again, this may add something to your next visit :) ... FYI Sunday is Jonesy's 30th birthday!
    - Kim Forwood

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.