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For their coming-out party Monday, the three new lion cubs at Utah's Hogle Zoo put on a show.

They tumbled and wrestled in the grasses of their stomping grounds in the African Savanna exhibit. They leaned in to loving nuzzles from their mom, Nabu, but also displayed their friskier tendencies, biting at her tail and jumping at her shoulders.

By the waterhole where their dad, Baron, was lounging with Uncle Vulcan, the cubs approached the males more gingerly, obviously wanting to initiate contact with the big boys but keeping their distance a bit more than they would with their mom or her sister, Seyla, who was off on her own playing with a ball.

Uncle Vulcan messed up once — although his offense wasn't readily apparent to human observers — and mom jumped between the cubs and her brother-in-law, a vigorous paw swipe and a sharp growl signaling her displeasure.

"He didn't do anything [wrong]," said Valerie Schubert, Hogle's primary lion keeper. "It's just about her comfort level. Nabu is exemplary as a mother. Her only fault is that she's almost overprotective, if you call that a fault. She knows what's appropriate [with her cubs] and what's not. She's just letting the boys know — 'Don't hurt the kids.' "

Schubert knows these cats.

She came to Hogle Zoo 2½ years ago, just before the set of sisters and set of brothers arrived here in the reintroduction of lions. Schubert watched Nabu and Baron become a couple, with Nabu giving birth in February to two boys and a girl (Brutus, Titus and Calliope). Then 2 pounds each, they now weigh anywhere from the low- to mid-20s. Since the concept of cubs is alien to lions at first, Schubert hovered close by as the youngsters were exposed first to their aunt — "she was pretty awkward at first" — then two weeks later to the males. Slowly and steadily during the past two months, the seven lions became family.

"Instincts kicked in," Schubert said. "Somehow, they know these are theirs."

With familial relationships settling into comfortable patterns, the cubs were elevated to an even bigger stage Monday — their day of full exposure to the public.

It was a big enough deal that Becca Thompson, from Millcreek, let her older kids miss a couple of hours of classes at Upland Terrace Elementary to see the cubs' debut.

"We had to look up how to pronounce the girl's name," Becca Thompson said as her daughter, Grace, 5½ (her emphasis on the half), rolled the name Calliope off of her tongue with elocution (ka-Li-o-pee). Her 2-year-old sister, Faith, stood up at a window, transfixed on the lions just inches away, flanked by older brothers Cody, 8, and Ty, 10. They were into it just as much as their little sister.

"I was afraid they'd be like [adolescent] boys and this would just be old news to them," mom noted. "But they have big smiles on their faces, too."

So did Emery Sasser, of Cottonwood Heights, holding up four fingers to show how old she was. "We'd gotten glimpses of them behind closed doors before," said her mom, Brooke. "We were excited to see the real deal."

And what impressed Emery most? "The paws," she said, pointing to the lion cubs' overly big feet, evidence they won't stay little for long.

Like Emery, 5-year-old Joah Estrada saw the cubs in their cages a week or so ago.

"He wanted to see them running around and playing," said Joah's dad, James, of Salt Lake City, delighted that his son's wish was fulfilled Monday.

"It's amazing that we're able to have lions back at the zoo — and now they have cubs," Estrada said. "It's great that the kids get to experience this."

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