If you’ve ever taken a stroll down East Beach early in the morning, you might have been startled.
Seemingly out of nowhere, you hear the deep barks of an animal, making your heart race a bit.
That’s just Chadwick, the Santa Barbara Zoo’s African Lion, and he’s staked claim to his spot since 2003.
“He’s just letting everyone know that this is his territory,” said Kristen Wieners, the Zoo’s zoological manager and training facilitator.
He had a bit more company than usual on Thursday morning, as he was greeted by a lamb carcas — a slightly early birthday gift for the soon-to-be 21-year-old lion, officially turning the clock on another year on Saturday.
Upon walking into the Cats of Africa exhibit on Thursday, one that he mans alone at this time, he slowly crept up to the carcas hanging from a tree, with a playful keg under it, an item he was initially more interested in.
Moments later, he stretched up and took the lamb into his mouth and carried it some 10 feet away, keeping his gift in between himself and the growing crowd around his exhibit.
For the first 45 minutes, Chadwick only nibbled on the meaty gift, only to give in to temptation during the middle of the afternoon.
Chadwick normally gets about five pounds of meat every day, so the lamb provided a much larger meal than normal.
The gift was a present from Crystal Wyatt, the chair of the Santa Barbara Zoo board of directors.
Ms. Wyatt, who has an undergraduate degree in biology, grew up going to the Santa Barbara Zoo and believes in the lessons that animals such as Chadwick offer.
“It’s really special to have animals in captivity to express their natural behaviors as much as possible,” Ms. Wyatt said. “It’s great to see that it has become more acceptable (to visitors). People seem to respond favorably if they know what’s coming. People enjoy seeing the natural behaviors.”
Chadwick is exceeding expectations when it comes to life duration, with only 25 percent of lions in the care of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums even make it to live 19.4 years. According to the Zoo, Chadwick is one of the five oldest African Lions under AZA care.
While in Santa Barbara, Chadwick has helped produce two cubs, both with his mate, Gingerbread. The first, Kiki, was born in 2004, while the second, Docha, came in 2005.
Kiki has moved on to the Fresno Zoo and has had several cubs, while Docha as at the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Mich. and has no offspring.
After not producing any offspring with a pair of females that shared the exhibit with Chadwick, they were sent away and Chadwick will live out his life as the sole resident of the Cats of Africa exhibit — a common occurrence in the wild when a younger, stronger male takes the reins as the leader of the pack.
After some recent dental work and consistent care from the veterinarians on staff, Chadwick continues to impress the staff with his longevity.
“He’s in surprisingly good health,” said Nancy McToldridge, zoo director. “Maybe it’s the Santa Barbara climate.”
Chadwick enjoys his view at the corner of the zoo, as he has a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean and the beach, where he studies trucks and heavy machinery. Ms. Wieners says that it’s almost a lost cause to get his attention if there are big trucks nearby.
“During the floods last year, when they were working on the beaches, we were wasting our breath even trying to talk to him, he was completely focused on all of the machinery,” Ms. Wieners said. “I guess he’s a typical guy.”
And while turning 21 comes with plenty of libations for a human, Chadwick isn’t a party animal, spending about 22 hours per day resting and sleeping.
Yet, Ms. Wyatt knows that Chadwick has provided the opportunity to educate the public about the zoo’s conservation efforts, hence why she wanted to make this birthday extra special.
“He’s been such an ambassador for the zoo during his time here,” Ms. Wyatt said. “I know that he is toward the end of his unnatural life expectancy, any small thing I can do to help make his life more enjoyable, it’s the least I can do.”