Venturing into the lions’ den
Intrepid reporter has a close encounter with the lions at Wellington Zoo.
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.
Reporter Amy Jackman feeds Wellington Zoo’s lion Malik.