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    A Bit Deeper

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    King of the Jungle. That brings expectations. No jungle at the Louisville Zoo, instead a manmade savanna rising from a grass moat. But there lies the king, enjoying the spoils of a squat shade tree, the slope of his rib cage puffing and contracting at an up-tempo, breathing through August. The three-year-old male lion, Siyanda, is new to Louisville, a transfer from a zoo in Texas, and he’s well-conditioned to napping through the redundant requests — “ROAR!” — coming from 10-and-unders passing by his exhibit. (Sometimes their parents too.) Also common: “Here kitty, kitty” and that kissy noise people make to housecats.

    Siyanda ignores it all, lifting his majestic, maned head to glance through a fence at giraffes who will always be neighbors but never lunch, only to sink back into his politely crossed paws. Later, he turns his face and body away from spectators. I eavesdrop on those who anticipate a thrill but encounter a slug: “He’s lazy.” “He must be tired.” “He’s under that tree again.” “Where’s the female lion?”

    That would be Kariba, the zoo’s resident lioness. At 22 years old, the geriatric cat sleeps a lot too. That’s what lions do, sometimes for 15 or 20 hours a day. Zookeepers tell me that when she is alert, she tears at meaty shanks and swats a plastic blue barrel the size of a beer keg.

    On an unusually cool day in June, I was walking somewhere near the rhino exhibit when I heard her release a series of hoarse, bark-y roars. Dang. Just a few minutes before, my children and I and a stranger had begged for some action. The stranger had held his iPhone in place, thumb hovering above the photo button, ready to archive any suggestion of wild that the 260-pound cat might muster. “Maybe she’s depressed,” he’d wondered aloud.

    Last fall, on the morning of Nov. 10, Kariba’s longtime companion, Kenya, was euthanized. The 18-year-old lion was weak and losing weight, suffering from a condition that made it difficult to clot blood, according to the zoo. Kariba and Kenya had spent every day together for 12 years, minus meals (zookeepers don’t want the lions fighting over food) and occasional separation for a few hours at a time. Zoo regulars would often spot them lying on one another and prowling their rocky little campus, like they were cooking up something sneaky.

    Upon Kenya’s death, the confined kingdom became hers. She was alone. She arrived at the Louisville Zoo in 2000 from a California rescue as part of a pride that included her mother, Azania, and sister, Amanda. Kenya eventually joined, ascending to pride leader. All have passed away.

    A few visitors have contacted zoo staff with concerns: Is she lonely? Is she grieving? Is she sad? Without her longtime mate to huddle with, I wonder too. I’m embarrassed to report that my lion knowledge is largely influenced by my kids’ Lion King habit. I can’t always discern fact from Disney. But any creature accustomed to another must recognize their sudden absence, must sense a stark new isolation. And lions are the only social big wild cats. They bond. (That’s confirmed fact. Source: Not The Lion King.)

    Kariba, you OK, girl?


    Recent research proves animals do have feelings. A 2014 New York Times story on the issue listed studies that show shore crabs remember pain, chimpanzees perform favors for one another and dogs really do burst with joy in their owners’ presence. Then there’s the story from this past summer of an orca in the Pacific Northwest that carried her dead newborn calf for 17 days on her back or in her mouth, the mother orca’s so-called “grief tour.”

    Still, scientific types really don’t like it when humans assign emotions and thoughts to animals. Term: anthropomorphism. “We will never know what’s going on in an animal’s mind,” says Steve Taylor, the assistant director of conservation, education and collection at the Louisville Zoo. “We’re not inside.” Taylor has worked at the zoo on and off (more on than off) since 1975 and says his specialty is animal behavior.

    In the months after Kenya died, he says zookeepers watched Kariba closely, looking for signs of distress — not eating, excessive licking. They offered her more attention, more things to do, such as giving her a large block of frozen blood or encouraging a scavenger hunt with food hidden throughout her exhibit. “If you provide the right help to the animal at her age, she’ll be fine,” Taylor says, adding that in Africa it would not be unusual for a lioness to live out her last few years alone, as males tend to die at a younger age. (Though they might also live out their life with a pride.)

    Taylor says understanding animals is all about spending time with them, learning their cues. “The more that you can read behavior, you know what a certain behavior means,” he says. “That’s information. It can tell you if it’s cold or hungry.” I get it. When my golden retriever, Pony, would trot to the back door, his nails click-clacking on the hardwood like high heels, I knew his bladder was full. Jumps at the door after my absence? Happy! Watching me leave by sitting so close to the window that the glass caught fog with each exhale? Anxiety. This wasn’t just vaudeville. I read him well. That is, until I didn’t like what he was trying to tell me.

    In the last few months of his 15-year life, I knew something wasn’t right. He kept losing weight. A two-mile jog became a walk around the block became a slow, stiff-legged errand to the corner. Then he couldn’t even do that. The vet softly urged me. But I resisted, not yet ready for the last resort. In March, when he stopped moving completely for a full day, I tearfully made the call. Before the vet euthanized him, I sat next to Pony on my floor for about two hours, my hand resting on his back. He’d grown so thin I could feel every notch in his spine when my hand went for a long, gentle stroke. At times, he’d bristle. A sign of love had become painful.

    The language we devise with our pets seems easily transferable. Taylor tells the story of a mother and daughter who complained to him a few years ago. They reported that the zoo’s fishing cats (a medium-sized wild cat native to southeast Asia) were obviously depressed. Taylor asked the women what made them think that. “They said it’s how their cats at home looked when they were sad,” he recalls. Taylor was confident that the fishing cats were just fine. (He says only one animal at the zoo — an anxious snow leopard — has ever been put on psychiatric medication.) “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure the animals are doing the best they can,” Taylor says. “I mean, you see a lion for five minutes — the hottest part of the day — and you expect a lion to be jumping through hoops. A cat can’t do that. They’re not supposed to be doing something all the time.” Further, he asks: What does a happy lion look like?


    Kariba’s a laid-back lioness, I’m told. Angela Johnson has been working with big cats at the Louisville Zoo for 18 years, and she says Kariba is “confident, intelligent” and a tad stubborn too. Kariba grumbles at Siyanda, but that’s about it. He doesn’t get her reproductive hormones going, which would be a sign of interest. They may never be introduced, instead living with a metal mesh barrier between them, rotating in and out of the exhibit one at a time. Kariba often prefers to stay in the back holding area rather than heading out on display. “There’s not much we can do to make a 300-pound lion go outside,” Johnson says. (As an aging lady myself, I totally identify with wanting to stay at home and hide from crowds.)

    Johnson doesn’t think Kariba is grieving at all. In fact, she says, Kariba showed no signs of mourning when her mother died in 2001 or when her sister did in 2012. Digging around on YouTube one day, I find a 2013 video of now-deceased Kenya roaring. A female voice coos at how precious and happy the lion looks after completing a strut in the exhibit and settling into a little cove. “He’s smiling,” she says. A few commenters concluded otherwise. “I can feel his depression,” one wrote. Another assessment: “That was a call lions make when they’re separated from their pride. Stop caging animals.”

    The YouTube video of Kenya’s maybe-happy/maybe-sad roar led me to videos of lions “mourning,” which rabbit-holed me to an ABC News clip following the death of Cecil, the beloved wild lion that lived in a national park in Zimbabwe. Researchers had tracked him for years until, in 2015, an American dentist who traveled to Africa to hunt big game killed him. In the segment, a lion expert from the University of Oxford who had been studying Cecil’s pride, states that Jericho, Cecil’s best pal, was mourning. He could hear it in Jericho’s roars. “Not a full-throated lion roar, with all the confidence, but a quieter contact call,” the expert said. “He’s just waiting for Cecil to reply. He’s realized that he’s alone and he’s desperately trying to find his partner.”

    But if Kariba’s keepers say she’s fine, they’d know best, right? I email Craig Packer, the director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota. (In a post-Cecil New Yorker piece, Packer is described as a “hard-nosed pragmatist,” someone who “does not think (lions) are morally admirable, kind, or possessed of a great wisdom inaccessible to modern man.”) I ask Packer: Do lions mourn?

    His answer, in full: “I’ve never seen any evidence that adult lions mourn the death of other adults. The closest I’ve seen is at the disappearance of small cubs, when the mothers will search for them for varying periods, but once they ‘decide’ their cubs are dead, they get over it pretty much immediately. And if mothers find their dead cubs, they seem pretty much unmoved, sometimes even eating the carcasses.”


    On a sticky summer day, with a thunderstorm ready to crack from the sky, I head to the zoo in hopes of seeing Kariba. Siyanda lounges outside instead, under that squat shade tree, his large-as-Belgian-waffles  paws dangling over a rock ledge. Mothers and children pause to acknowledge the new male lion, and three separate children at three different times loudly proclaim that the “dad lion” had died after falling off a cliff. Inaccurate, but nice to hear I’m not the only one educated by The Lion King.

    When Siyanda yawns, it reminds me of Pony, the way he’d stretch his mouth slow, wide and extended, only to snap it shut. He’d release a mighty yawn just before resting his head. The acute grief of Pony’s death has passed. But I still miss him. For weeks after he passed, every morning, when it was still dark out, I’d strain my eyes in the gray light to search for his long body, as to not trip over him. And at night I’d head to unlock the back door so he could go to the yard.

    Humans usually have the space to mourn. The survival instinct in lions might not allow for a dip into grief. Too many threats to slow down for a cry. Kariba, perhaps, is obeying evolution. Hakuna matata, I guess.

    One day this summer, as I leave the zoo, I get a text from a friend. I tell her I’m at the zoo, writing about the lioness. She texts me back that she had recently seen Kariba: “She looked lonely.”

    This originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "The Lone Lionness." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo by Mickie Winters,

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