Ninja the mountain lion lay serenely in the grass Sunday afternoon during his 1st birthday party at the New York State Zoo at Thompson Park, the trees in his pen adorned with bright-colored streamers for the occasion.
He chirped like a bird while napping in the shade, as if trying to capture the attention of his primary caregiver, Brenda A. Fisk, who has weaned him since he was 8 weeks old and weighed 10 pounds. He now weighs 100 pounds.
Standing outside the exhibit's gate, Ms. Fisk said the sultry, 80-degree weather seems to have made Ninja less playful than usual. But she added his behavior is nearly impossible to predict, likening him to a curious 3-year-old child.
Proving that point, Ninja abruptly leapt 6 feet in the air to claw at a yellow streamer that fluttered above him on a branch. “Good boy!” Ms. Fisk shouted. “I'm so proud of you!”
It's the first time she's witnessed Ninja — who was named for his athletic prowess — leap that high. But she added he could go much higher; adult males can jump up to 21 feet in the air, according to the zoo's display.
Ninja came to the zoo in August after he was found abandoned by his mother in Montana's Absaroka Mountains.
He was originally named Sorkey for the mountains, Ms. Fisk said, but his name was changed to Ninja this winter after a competition on Facebook that drew 1,100 votes. Other finalists included Climby, Tsavorite and Linus — after the “Peanuts” cartoon character who is attached to his blanket like the cub.
But in the end, the community rallied behind Ninja, a name selected by preschool students from the Chapel Drive Child Development Center at Fort Drum.
Obtaining Ninja last year was ideal timing for the zoo, Ms. Fisk said, because its 18-year-old male lion, Garnet, died in January. Beloved by north country residents, Garnet was the longest-living mountain lion in North America.
Ninja is now featured at the zoo with Boo, a 9-year-old female lion. Although the cats are exhibited by themselves every other day, they'll likely share the space this year when Ninja becomes an adult.
“We want to make sure they get along and don't injure each other,” Ms. Fisk explained. “Boo thinks this is her territory and she's very possessive, while Ninja's very playful.”
On Sunday, a family from Fort Stewart, Ga., stopped to admire Ninja, who knocked a coconut on the grass as they watched. The father, Daniel V. Hickey, said the family traveled north to visit his brother, Capt. Christopher Davis, stationed at Fort Drum. Mr. Hickey's 3-year-old twin sons, Aidan Q. and Danny L., had fun seeing the animals up close.
“We've been to zoos in 20 different states, and this is one of the best,” he said. “The fences are low enough for the children to see everything.”
Plans are also now in motion to break ground on a project that will retrofit the zoo's aviary into a multipurpose educational facility. The city of Watertown, which owns the buildings at the zoo, approved an engineering study for the project in June that will cost about $400,000.