For nearly 17 years, Chadwick would amble to the top of his rocky perch, fixated on what seemingly was his favorite sport.
The Santa Barbara Zoo’s majestic African lion could barely be distracted, staring at the countless beach volleyball players at East Beach, fascinated with his beachfront view of Santa Barbara’s favorite pastime.
Meanwhile, he was the subject of adoration by millions, both by locals and tourists alike. Watching Chadwick was about as close as you can get to the open plains of Africa — getting a rare glimpse at one of the world’s most beautiful creatures.
On Thursday morning, the 21-year-old Chadwick was humanely euthanized, ending a 17-year lovefest with the South Coast.
“He was the reigning monarch of the zoo,” said Rich Block, the zoo’s president and CEO.
Already the oldest African lion in an Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited institution, Chadwick’s health had rapidly declined in recent weeks. Through the use of CT scans and blood chemistry, Chadwick’s caretakers knew that pain management was a growing concern and were desperate to find ways to make life easier for him.
Once simple, routine behaviors became challenging, caretakers knew that stabilizing the situation might be out of the question, especially considering he had already outlived the normal lifespan of an African lion by five years.
“It came down to assessing his quality of life,” Mr. Block said. “With our access to different devices and the ability to analyze blood and other bio samples, it gave us great insight into stress levels and his sources of pain.
“Animals can’t tell you anything, it’s in their nature to mask problems. But the problems for Chadwick became more obvious.”
Chadwick arrived in Santa Barbara in March 2003, moving to Southern California from the Indianapolis Zoo, where he was born on Sept. 21, 1998.
Chadwick’s arrival came just before the zoo opened its Cats of Africa exhibit.
“I also came from the Indianapolis Zoo, so Chadwick is very special to me, I felt so fortunate to get him in 2003,” Mr. Block said.
With the exhibit designed for up to six lions to take up residence, Chadwick was joined by his mate, Gingerbread, in late 2003, setting up a love affair that would produce two lion cubs, Kiki in 2004 and Docha in 2005.
Chadwick was very committed to Gingerbread, showing no interest in two female lions, Kadi and Neema, that were brought to the zoo in 2012 in hopes of breeding.
Gingerbread, who came from the Lee Richardson Zoo in Garden City, Kan., spent 13 years alongside Chadwick before being humanely euthanized in Feb. 2017 due to a long-term illness.
“At that time, we really looked at what would be best for Chadwick, knowing at how long they had been together,” Mr. Block said. “But, just like in the wild, older males usually spend their last years by themselves, usually beat up and sick. Thankfully, Chadwick was in a much better situation over his final couple of years.”
Chadwick was an active participant in his own health care, with the zoo developing an area within the exhibit that allowed them to draw blood, provide injections, apply eye drops and develop a relationship with him — not your typical vet experience of yesteryear.
“Twenty years ago, animals would fear the site of a vet, it wasn’t a positive and two-way experience,” Mr. Block said. “What Chadwick helped us learn we were able to use with other animals. We were able to teach behaviors that allowed them to participate in their own health care. They actually accepted the help.”
With the goal of educating people about the plight of African lions, Chadwick served as an ambassador for the species, something not lost on the hundreds of fan comments on the zoo’s Facebook page on Thursday.
“Oh dear… this was the one post I have been dreading. Seems like all of our favorites are going to the big jungle in the sky. I’ll never forget him waking us up on the zoo camp out with his morning roars and chuffs. It’s going to be hard seeing his empty enclosure on Sunday. Thank you to all the zoo and staff who cared for him (and all the other animals). You guys are amazing and my heart goes out to you all,” said Jennifer Nicole Bryant.
Others spoke to the impact on their families.
“Oh my heart… I’ll miss you sweet boy. Thank you for bringing our family so much joy over the last 10 plus years! We love you and will always remember you as the beautiful king of the SB Zoo,” said Tammi Campbell Tyminski.
And even zoo volunteers weighed in on Chadwick’s impact on their own world outlook.
“Goodbye Chadwick. Working with you as a volunteer was one of the greatest privileges of my life. To say you were an incredible lion would be inadequate. You were magnificent in every way and being in your presence felt like walking a little closer to the sun. Your contribution to the conservation of your species in the wild means you will live forever,” Theresa Bong said.
And while the zoo plans to welcome a new lion into the exhibit down the line, Mr. Block knows that Chadwick cannot be replaced, both in stature and in the hearts of the community.
“He inspired and impressed zoo visitors over the years,” Mr. Block said. “On one hand, I’m really sad because he’s been with us for so long. On the other hand, I appreciate the fact that he lived a very long life, was well cared for and he built a bridge between animals and humans, especially in concern for his relatives in the wild.
“Long live our king.”