Santa Barbara Zoo discusses its long history with big cats
Chadwick had it made.
The king of the jungle lived in a paradise overlooking the Pacific Ocean and could lie around all day on a rock, with his servants bringing him food. He liked and respected his neighbors; he even looked up to them.
They were the giraffes.
Chadwick loved his life at the Santa Barbara Zoo, even if his fellow lion Kariba wouldn’t return his affection. But there’s someone for everyone, and Chadwick went on to meet Gingerbread. They had a romance worth roaring about!
The two had a couple cubs together and lived happy lives up to Gingbread’s and Chadwick’s deaths in 2017 and 2019, respectively. The lion enclosure has sat empty since Chadwick passed away in December, but the Santa Barbara Zoo is discussing its long history with lions in anticipation of the day that a lion or lions walk among the zoo again.
The first lion was Dandelion, zoo CEO Rich Block told the News-Press just before the zoo announced it would reopen to the general public on June 23.
A Montecito resident donated Dandelion in 1970. “The individual decided keeping a lion in their home was probably not a great idea,” Mr. Block said.
Mr. Block said the original lion enclosure was located in the area that’s now home to the zoo’s snow leopard or leopards.
Dandelion lived at the zoo up to his death in 1984, approaching the average life expectancy of a lion in a zoo.
He was replaced by two cubs from a ranch or breeding facility somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, Mr. Block said.
Paka and Kali grew up at the Santa Barbara Zoo.
“They were siblings. They got along well,” Mr. Block said.
“Paka died in 2001,” Mr. Block said. “I came in 1998. I had an opportunity to spend time with them.”
In 1999, the zoo enclosure was modified to give the animals more space and provide some distance between the people and the lions. The chain link around the enclosure was replaced by a woven, stainless steel mesh that Mr. Block said increased visibility for the lions. The enclosure was also expanded.
Chadwick came in late 2002 from the Indianapolis Zoo and was joined by Kariba, who arrived from Zoo Atlanta. They soon moved to the current enclosure, which allowed for more space for exploration.
“It has rock formations. It has places to climb, and it’s really great for lions to have a view of everything from the volleyball players on the beach to the giraffes adjacent to the exhibit,” Mr. Block said.
“The lions have some pretty amazing vistas from the exhibit,” he said. “We wanted to maximize the space available for them.”
“We had a creative team down in Tucson, Ariz., come up and create this amazing rock work that allows the cats to get to all these different places and different elevations,” Mr. Block said.
“These guys were great. They built steps into all the rock works that are not visible,” Mr. Block said. “So as the lions aged and became less able to jump up on a place, they could still walk to the places they’d like to sit.”
It truly was paradise except for Chadwick’s problem with romance. He was crazy about Kariba, and she had no interest in him.
“Over a period of time, Chadwick would slowly work his way to get closer to her,” Mr. Block said. “When he got within the safety distance, she would hiss and swat at him and move somewhere else.
“Then the dance would start over again. He never gave up,” Mr. Block said.
Kariba had a short life at the zoo because of her health complications that included a hip that wasn’t completely formed and a rare blood disorder.
After Kariba’s death, Gingerbread came from the Lee Richardson Zoo in Kansas, and that meant romance for Chadwick. (Finally!)
“They really bonded. It was never unusual to see the two of them hanging out together interacting,” Mr. Block said. “They were fantastic. One could not have asked for a better pair of lions.”
The happy couple had two cubs together: Kiki, a female born in 2004, and Docha, a male born in 2005. Kiki went on to Zoo Atlanta, where she had a liter of her own and lives today at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Docha resides today at the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Mr. Block said zoos hope their lion exhibits will inspire awareness and support conservation efforts. “Depending on where you are in Africa, lions are anywhere from vulnerable to threatened.”
He said lions remain especially popular with visitors at zoos. “One thing that’s appealing about lions is they’re highly social. You can have a pride of lions, a group of them with multiple generations interacting together.”
Chadwick definitely was popular with Santa Barbara Zoo visitors.
“He was a gorgeous animal,” Mr. Block said. “He was certainly close to what people think of for an African lion male.
“He was mellow. He was trainable,” Mr. Block said. “The keepers were able to do some training with him, which ultimately extended the comfort of his life.”
The zoo CEO explained training is used not to have animals perform tricks but to do behaviors that help with their care, such as presenting their paws for inspection.
Chadwick proved to be very cooperative with zoo keepers.
“After Chadwick had cataract surgery, they were able to administer eye drops daily,” Mr. Block said.
“He did not seem distressed by the presence of people,” Mr. Block said. “He was pretty laid back.”
Chadwick was often seen just lying on a rock.
After all, he was perfectly happy living in his paradise by the sea.
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The Santa Barbara Zoo, 500 Ninos Drive, will reopen to the general public June 23 after its closure during the COVID-19 pandemic. There will be safety enhancements and modifications in place. To visit, you must make a reservation for a timed entry slot. Go to sbzoo.org.