August 20, 2013 Updated: August 20, 2013 at 9:05 pm
In the world of the wild lynx, Dad is traditionally absentee, disappearing back into his reclusive, solitary life after mating.
As it turns out, Kajika, father to the first lynx kittens born at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, is something of a family guy - a rare thing even for lynx in captivity. The zoo is one of the first in the United States to introduce a father lynx to mother and kittens, according to the Association of Zoos and Aquarium's lynx management group.
"Dad's still trying to figure out what to do with three little ones that are under foot," said Rebecca Zwicker, lead animal keeper in the zoo's Rocky Mountain Wild exhibit, while the 6-year-old male Canada lynx - whose name is pronounced kah-jee'-kah - attempted to negotiate around his mate, Magina (mah-jee'-nah), and his trio of broad-pawed offspring in the family's outdoor habitat Tuesday afternoon. "Dad paces the perimeter. That's kind of his thing. He's got his favorite path, and these little ones have a habit of getting right in that path."
You know, like kids.
Often mistaken for bobcats, wild lynx are considered a "species of concern" in Colorado, and hunting and trapping are illegal. The state's wild population was nearly eradicated before an aggressive reintroduction program in the 1990s.
"You're incredibly fortunate to see a lynx in the wild. They're called the gray ghost of the forest for a reason," Zwicker said. "That you're seeing lynx kittens is almost unheard of. This is a real treat for us."
Though normally loners, the zoo's male and female Canada lynx have been living together since arriving at the zoo as kittens in 2007. The pair clearly had a close bond but didn't seem ready to mate until recently, Zwicker said.
"It's not uncommon for these guys, if things aren't right they're just not going to breed," she said. "The fact that they did this year, obviously something's going right."
Magina gave birth May 8 to the two males and one female kitten. The siblings have been in an off-exhibit outdoor habitat until zoo workers determined they were big enough to negotiate the larger outdoor space. The "howdies" - closely monitored introductions between the trio and Dad, initially through barriers - began a few weeks ago.
"The howdy is basically where they can see each other but they can't touch," Zwicker said.
"Eventually, you do the introduction where you open it up. Then, we slowly start being able to step away. We don't want to rush it."
For the moment, the kittens remain unnamed, distinguished only by small patches shaved in their fur. Naming rights were won by a donor in an auction at the annual Zoo Ball fundraising gala.
"We're excited to hear the names. We're getting tired of Right Shoulder, Hip, and The Girl," Zwicker said. "Definitely, their personalities are starting to shine through. The one with the shaved spot on his shoulder thinks Dad is just the best thing since sliced bread."
Maybe the kittens will end up with meaningful names like their mother, whose name means "returning moon" - "in honor of the lynx returning to Colorado," Zwicker said.
In 1997, Colorado began one of the nation's most high-profile carnivore reintroduction programs, eventually relocating 218 Canada lynx to the state, with the heaviest concentrations in the southwest.
"We know those originally introduced have bred and had kittens and those kittens have had kittens. We have several generations now of lynx that are native to the state," said Randy Hampton, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The animals remain a fan favorite - at the zoo, and beyond.
In January, after a retired national parks service employee photographed a rare trio of lynx in southwest Colorado and shared it on the parks department's Facebook page, the post instantly went viral.
"They're amazingly beautiful critters. They're rare in the wild to see, not because of their population, but because of their behavior," Hampton said. "I think when people do get the opportunity to see them, they recognize it as a very cool thing."
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364