Monday, October 12, 2009


Hundreds and hundreds of feet traipse past the lazy African lions that lounge in the Large Cat House each sweltering summer. They yawn and lick their chops while conveniently ignoring the crowds of people peeking through the glass and pressing their sweaty palms against the cool barrier. Occasionally, a lion or lioness will roar for no apparent reason, almost as if they know that their roar will scare everyone within a five mile radius of the den. African Lions are considered the only social cats of the wilderness, but at first glance, they don't quite live up to their honor. In the zoo they rarely get the chance to take down prey or live in a pride. A day in the life of a captive lion basically consists of staring at the people that are staring at them. To the general public it seems juvenile to get excited about a spot that one can see for a small price of an optional donation. But actually taking the time to observe a lion's habitat becomes so much more intriguing when the crowds have dispersed for the winter and the only little girl left is starring eye to eye with Garth, a Panthera Leo, in his territory. The lion doesn't yawn or even blink, and every movement the girl makes is followed with a flick of the greenish cat eyes. He only looks away when the orange and white blur of a tiger flashes by in the opposite enclosure. The brief encounter takes place in a pastel colored room in the Large Cat House, located right where civilization meets it's end, and acting like an animal is what the resident's of the community do best.

The Large Cat Exhibit was first opened to the public in 1980, it was the beginning of many of Como Zoo's renovations. As crowds make their way through the double doors and down the steep stone stairs, they enter a shrine of pastel yellows, greens, and purples. The walls and the ceiling are painted with depictions of three different cat families and twisting green and grey vines. On either side of the walkway there are huge windows opening up to the enclosures of the three specific animals. I was informed by Claire, a Como Zoo Conservatory volunteer, that the glass keeping the faux wilderness from human contact is nine sheets of bullet proof safety. I was also told that the exhibit was designed based on a tent from the Mughal Empire circa 1600 in Northern India. The reason being the Mughal Empire was the very last culture in which the lion, tiger, and snow leopard cohabited. The art of the Mughal culture was very colorful, patterned work, which is represented in the Large Cat House where the lion, tiger, and snow leopard once again coexist as they did when the Mughal Empire thrived.

The lion den consists of 4 lions. There are Garth and Winona, ages 16 and 17, who are the parents to Mufasa and Savannah. Both pairs are very bonded, even Mufasa and Savannah who are siblings. Claire believes that one lion would be very, very upset if something happened to the other. Garth has had a vasectomy so cubs are not an option, but the mating continues because the lions have no idea that they are not able to reproduce. Claire said that the zoo would never allow siblings to produce offspring, so Mufasa has also had a vasectomy to prevent Savannah from giving birth. They all lounge in a dimly lit, two room den, with a small opening connecting from one enclosure to another. Both sides of the separating stone wall have large black rocks that cover the entire surface. Behind a mesh gate there are trees, bushes, and vines that attempt to create an outdoors feeling. Cluttering the floor are plenty of toys that have clearly been very loved: a beat up, purple, kiddie pool, a scratched and worn, oversized rubber duck, a small tire swing with thick intertwined rope holding it to the ceiling, and a large tractor tire that makes for a good size reference.

For being bred in captivity, it is amazing how chiseled and bulky their bodies are. They are on the smaller side compared to wild lions, but they still evoke a certain amount of fear. Claire says that Winona is the "moody" lioness. When she gets angry or uneasy she hits at the glass, something that could easily frighten someone as close too her as her own zoo keeper. When I saw her, Winona was lounging around the tractor tire, oblivious to anything but the inside of her eyelids. Garth had taken a stance at the other side of the tractor tire, almost as if he was anticipating something.

The young girl was long gone, but Garth was still stationed in the same spot, staring past my eyes, no longer phased by the tiger across the walkway, and no longer widening his jaw to yawn. That is the way I left him, waiting for next season's crowd of spectators to burst down the stairs and into his home. They will gawk and giggle as he and Winona go through the motions of captive lions and entertain the masses with roars and flicking tails. They wont show fear, anger, or any interest at all until the crowds start to leave, and again, that one lucky person is noticed and acknowledged as Garth admires their complexity, and wonders what it is like to be on the other side of the glass.

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