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A lioness at the Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center has sprouted a mane

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Many of us took liberties with our hairstyles during the pandemic. They sure did at the Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center.

SHANNA SIMPSON: So we were like, oh, weird, you know, Zuri's getting a mohawk. And then she started to really grow the fur around her neck. We're like, holy moly, Zuri is growing a mane.

SIMON: And that is animal curator Shanna Simpson. Zuri is an 18-year-old lioness. Her fellow lion Avus died in 2020. He was the only male of Topeka's three lions. It didn't take long for Zuri to start growing that distinctively long hair that is mainly associated with males.

SIMPSON: It's nothing like a fully sexually mature male lion. She kind of has this, like, teenage vibe going on. So I would say it's probably about, like, three or four inches long, you know, around her neck. And it goes down below her chin and her lower jaw, and it kind of hangs down close to her chest. And then she does have that mohawk still. The mohawk is my favorite part.

SIMON: Shanna Simpson says Zuri has always had a strong personality and more or less ran the pride even when Avus was around.

SIMPSON: She's a very dominant female. She always has been. You know, she's kind of in charge. She's the more feisty one.

SIMON: But Shanna Simpson says Zuri is elderly, and her facial hair may be a natural, normal rise in her testosterone. The lioness at the Oklahoma City Zoo who developed a mane died in 2018 because of cancer in her adrenal gland. Zuri is in good health, and her caretakers see no signs of serious illness, and other cases have been benign.

SIMPSON: In Botswana, there was a pride of lionesses, like four or five lionesses, and they did a study on them. And they increased their testosterone, and they showed signs of being the protectors and kind of taking that role and getting a mane. So it's just - it's fascinating. It's so rare, and it's fascinating.

SIMON: Zuri and the other lions have always been a favorite at the Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center. And even zoo regulars have mistaken Zuri for a new male cat. Animal curator Shanna Simpson says...

SIMPSON: She's just not as pretty as she used to be.

SIMON: Ah, but she does now look a lot more like B.J. Leiderman, who does our theme music - growl.

(SOUNDBITE OF SILVANA ESTRADA AND CHARLIE HUNTER'S "LO SAGRADO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.