Ven­tur­ing into the lions’ den

In­trepid re­porter has a close en­counter with the lions at Welling­ton Zoo.

Kapi-Mana News - - FEATURE -

In 1993, aged 4, I went to Welling­ton Zoo with my grand­par­ents and older brother.

I can’t re­mem­ber much but the trip to the lions’ en­clo­sure is firmly etched in my me­mory.

The un­der­ground view­ing area had just opened.

One lioness was stand­ing on the ledge, right by the glass, drink­ing from the wa­ter­ing hole.

As I wan­dered up to the hole in the wall, the lioness looked up and straight at me. I’m pretty sure she even licked her lips.

That was the end of me. I ran up the stairs scream­ing that the lion was go­ing to eat me. I even made gran go down and get my brother and grand­dad be­cause they were in dan­ger as well.

My brain had com­pletely failed to reg­is­ter the glass. Even look­ing back, I don’t re­call that it was there.

Al­most 20 years later, I again found my­self face-to­face with a lion, five of them, at the Lion Close En­counter with a friend.

Close En­coun­ters have been run by the zoo for many years and give a fan­tas­tic op­por­tu­nity for peo­ple to un­der­stand the an­i­mals bet­ter and glimpse how the zoo works.

Our lions en­counter was taken by keep­ers Dave French and Simon Hunt. We were in­tro­duced to the zoo’s three lionesses, Djane, Djembe and Zahra, and two lions, Ma­lik and Zulu.

Dave showed us how the keep­ers do sim­ple train­ing with the an­i­mals to check that they are healthy. That means mak­ing a se­ries of clicks and hand move­ments to get the lion to do a cer­tain ac­tion in­clud­ing stand­ing on its hind legs and open­ing its mouth.

One of the lions was then placed in the ‘‘crush’’, the nar­row cage used for med­i­cal pro­ce­dures. We were able to stroke the lions through the mesh cage and hold its tail.

Dave said en­sur­ing the an­i­mals were all right with dif­fer­ent peo­ple touch­ing them in cer­tain places was im­por­tant for when vets came to check them over. In­jec­tions are of­ten ad­min­is­tered into a lion’s tail.

It was ob­vi­ous through­out the en­counter that the lions were smart, ter­ri­to­rial and had per­son­al­i­ties.

For ex­am­ple, twice dur­ing the en­counter with Ma­lik, he sprayed scent mark­ers with al­most pin­point aim. Only a quick jump to the side saved us from end­ing the en­counter cov­ered in urine.

Dave said Ma­lik was known to give new keep­ers the same treat­ment.

‘‘He has a deadly aim and def­i­nitely knows ex­actly what he’s do­ing,’’ he said. ‘‘He’ll wait un­til he thinks you’re trapped in one spot or you’re hold­ing some­thing or not paying at­ten­tion and hit you square on.’’

Dave told us about how the keep­ers stim­u­late the lions’ ter­ri­to­rial in­stincts.

‘‘Lions are all about food and their ter­ri­tory. Once we made a pa­pier mache ze­bra filled with meat and placed it in the grass in their en­clo­sure,’’ he said.

‘‘It was when we still had ze­bras here so we rubbed a lot of their scent on it as well. The lionesses stalked it, pounced on it and killed it as if it was real. They went straight for the throat and threw it around the en­clo­sure.’’

At the end of the en­counter came the fun part – we got to feed the lions.

Simon and Dave brought out a bucket filled with meat and showed us how to feed the big cats safely.

We soon had lion saliva and blood from the meat all over our hands.

The feel­ing of hav­ing a wild, big cat take meat out of your hands and lick you at the same time is sur­real. It’s one of those ex­pe­ri­ences you’ll never for­get.

Af­ter the en­counter it was clear Welling­ton Zoo’s lions had given me one of the scari­est and most mem­o­rable mo­ments of my life.

For in­for­ma­tion about the zoo’s close en­coun­ters, visit www.welling­ton­zoo.com.

Photo: AN­DREW MACKAY

Close en­counter:

Re­porter Amy Jack­man feeds Welling­ton Zoo’s lion Ma­lik.

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