Farewell to an Old Friend

A Tribute to Elson.

By Dina Bredahl, Animal Care Manager

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo experienced an irreplaceable loss Friday, May 27, 2011, when Elson, the zoo’s 16-year-old male African lion, passed away. Elson was receiving end of life care, and at the time of his death, was under anesthesia for treatment of a dental infection. It was during the procedure that Elson’s heart stopped. Typical life expectancy of African lions in captivity is 14 to 20 years.

Elson’s legacy is two-fold. He contributed critical founder genetics to the North American Lion Species Survival Plan (SSP) through his 13 cubs and at least seven grandcubs. These descendents live at Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) facilities all across the U.S., including Abilene, Bronx, Pueblo, San Francisco, Minot, Tulsa, Akron, Baltimore, Birmingham, and here in Colorado Springs. He has also inspired the millions of zoo guests who have stared in awe at his grandeur. For many, it was the most unbelievable animal they had encountered in their life. What else made Elson so special? Read on for his story through the eyes and hearts of our staff.

Unlike most animals at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Elson was not born in a zoo. He was born in the wild at Kapama Reserve, located next to the Greater Kruger National Park in South Africa. To truly realize Elson’s significance, you have to understand the history of lions in zoos. Historically, when animals were imported in the early to mid 1900s, there was little documentation about their geographic origin. It was common practice to import lions from Asia and Africa, and allow them to reproduce. After many years of unmanaged breeding, many lions in U.S. zoos were “generic,” meaning no longer Asian or African, but rather a hybrid mix. In the 1990s, the SSP started working with reserves and biologists in South Africa to identify animals that could be exported without harming their conservation status in the wild. The SSP arranged for the importation of several lions from South Africa to establish a new population of the subspecies Panthera leo krugeri.

As you can imagine, the cost to import an African lion is quite a sum of money. One Cheyenne Mountain Zoo board member was extremely interested in the potential for Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to be involved in the critically important breeding of African lions, and volunteered to fund Elson’s importation. Elson arrived at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in November of 1996. We know he was born in early 1995, so he was not quite two years old. He had the beginnings of a mane, with a spiky mohawk on his head and some unruly hair around his neck. Little did anyone know what a staggeringly beautiful animal he would become.

In April of 1997, Elson was introduced to Massina, a female who would serve as a short-term companion for Elson. It was in her company he developed into a mature lion. Massina was later sent to another zoo. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo was lucky enough to acquire a second wild-born African lion, a female named Angie. In December of 2000, Elson and Angie were introduced, and in June of 2002, Angie gave birth to a litter of four cubs. Elson had sired his first offspring!

When the cubs were 5 ½ weeks old, Elson had his first opportunity to enter the birthing den. He and Angie greeted each other, and Elson immediately went right over to smell and lick the cubs. When he tried to carry one outside, Angie put a stop to it. She would make the decision about when the cubs were ready, and Elson gracefully followed her lead. Together, Elson and Angie raised 13 cubs – a total of four litters, born in 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2007. These genetically valuable cubs were an important contribution to the African lion population in AZA-accredited zoos.

Elson was the most amazing father. He was gentle with the cubs when they were tiny, and they learned to respect his authority as they grew older. When each litter was old enough to come out and play, here was the typical scene - Elson would twitch the end of his tail and the cubs attacked it; Elson would playfully swat at the cubs, and they would run away into the bushes, preparing to stalk his tail again. The cubs would also jump on his back and roll clumsily off the other side. Elson’s patience was endless.

In another situation, Botswana, a male cub requiring around-the-clock care and bottle feedings from Cheyenne Mountain Zoo staff, was separated from the rest of his siblings for several weeks. To increase the chance of his acceptance, he was re-introduced to his litter mates first, so their smells would blend. Worst case scenario, Angie would reject the entire litter and refuse to nurse them, or Elson would smell the strange scents on the unfamiliar cub and attack him. Angie hissed a little when she first approached Botswana, but soon accepted him back into the litter and allowed him to nurse as if he had never left the lion building. Next, we gave Elson access to the birthing den and watched via camera. He batted at Botswana with his paws, as if he was testing him. Although Elson seemed a little suspicious for a few days, the play did not become too rough, and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. This reaffirmed our belief Elson was a great father.

Elson might sound like the ideal lion, but there were some days he was less than perfect. Just as some house cats can act aloof and will only cooperate on their terms, so did the 400-pound wild African king of the savannah. On the average winter day, he was usually cooperative, however, the summer months were another story. His appetite slowed and he was often more interested in paying attention to Angie than listening to the animal keepers. It could feel like a major victory if Elson would decide to grace you with his presence and agree to shift into the off-exhibit holding building. Why did we care? The only way to properly clean a lion exhibit is to enter the exhibit, and in the case of large carnivores, the animals of course need to move elsewhere in order to do this. We tried all sorts of things, like rattling the feed chute door, dropping a bone loudly (this was his favorite treat), opening the meat packages in front of his door, and calling “El-son!” in the most convincing voice you could muster. Sometimes our little tricks worked, but often, he just lounged on his rock with his nose in the air. We all knew Elson’s wildness and uncompromising personality was a big part of what made him so unique and special.

One animal keeper states it well, calling Elson the “real deal.” He wanted to be out in the yard with his pride, making his territorial vocalizations. As he waited for Angie and the cubs to finish their training every day, he seemed to say, “Are you done playing with the humans yet?” He was never happy until his pride was back together and he was in control.

Here are more favorite memories from staff:

  • Every morning and every evening like clockwork, no matter where you were in the zoo, you could hear Elson roar. The other lions usually joined him until it became a full chorus. It will not be the same without Elson’s impressive roar leading the pride.
  • For those of us lucky enough to work with Elson on a daily basis, we sometimes heard him roaring territorially in the off-exhibit lion holding area. In an enclosed building like that, his roars echoed and were amplified, so you not only heard the vocalizations but felt them vibrate through your whole body. You couldn’t talk to fellow keepers, let alone hear yourself talk. You simply had to wait a minute or two while experiencing a true sense of wonder and exhilaration.
  • We always had to place at least seven bones around the exhibit, even though there were only five lions. This is because it was rarely acceptable for Elson to end up with only one bone, even if it was the biggest. He took a big bone to his favorite spot, then stole a couple of bones from the other lions before hunkering down to enjoy his proper share. Everyone else knew better than to argue if he decided their bone looked like a good one.
  • He looked so majestic eating meatballs, sometimes as large as his head. His rumble sounded like a noisy diesel engine.
  • Elson got excited about scent enrichment like no other lion at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. One of the lion keepers remembers spraying a new “manly” perfume on a big rock in the exhibit. When Elson went outside, he rubbed his face and mane all over that rock. He smelled like he had been out on a big date when he came back inside for his evening meal!

When any staff member from Cheyenne Mountain Zoo visits another zoo, we always find ourselves comparing every other male African lion to Elson. The conclusion is always the same - no other male comes close. He is truly the most beautiful male lion any of us have ever seen. I expect we will feel this way for the rest of our lives.