Posted by: Kelly Gross, Zookeeper with Dana Wooster, Zookeeper
Earlier this summer, we lost an amazing animal: Jake, the remaining member of the dynamic lion duo many visitors and staff alike have so many fond memoires of, the wonderful Jake and Juanita.
Jake was born at Woodland Park Zoo on June 10, 1991. According to longtime feline keeper Dana Wooster who began taking care of him when he was 11 months old, as a young lion Jake was always getting into trouble with his twin brother, Elwood. The two of them were very playful and were forever sneaking up and pouncing on their parents and aunts. At some point their mother, Sukari, gave up trying to keep them in line. Because of their mischievousness, Dana always imagined that if Jake and his brother had been human they would have been stealing hubcaps or committing other petty crimes. As they matured their manes began to grow, first into spiky mohawks, making them look quite punk, and then into magnificent manes. Jake took after his father, Josh, who had a beautiful full mane that reached to his hind legs.
The first time I stood in front of Jake when he roared was one of the most amazing moments in my life. A lion’s roar begins as a little moan that increases in tempo and volume until it reaches a thundering climax. The call is very loud, but for me what is most incredible is the shockwave of sound that hits your body with each note, reverberating inside your chest and all of your internal organs. The female lions will usually join in and the call becomes a duet, her part seamlessly intermingling with his, harmonizing and catching the beats in between. Dana would often say, “You should have heard it when we had 6 lions all roaring at the same time, now that was loud!”
By 2001, Jake was all by himself, the last remaining member of his family. That is when the lovely Miss Juanita joined the picture. She came to us from another zoo where she had also been by herself, and their introductions could not have gone better. They quickly became the regal king and queen of the savanna, and frequently could be seen butting heads in greeting, grooming each other, or simply just resting together.
When the South African lions Hubert and Kalisa arrived, Jake and Juanita moved to the off-exhibit enclosure where they would both live out the rest of their lives. This enclosure is just behind the savanna lion exhibit, and the lions could see each other during parts of the year when the foliage was less dense. They could frequently be heard calling back and forth to each other, a sort of competition between couples, seeing who could outdo the other. Often these challenges were initiated by Jake, who had an advantage that he made full use of—the large dens and hallways of his enclosure where even the smallest sound echoes like a freight train. It always seemed as though Jake thoroughly enjoyed roaring and hearing the sound of his own voice. We would often see him facing a wall, either outside or in a den, roaring his heart out.
It was during the time that Jake and Juanita lived off-view that I started taking care of them on a regular basis, and began to appreciate their grace and beauty on yet another level.
Juanita had been ill, and although it had not been confirmed, it was suspected that she had cancer. She started becoming very picky about what food she would eat, and as a result started to lose weight. When her normal diet of chicken and rabbit no longer provided enough nourishment, I started experimenting with other meats, and discovered she really liked pork. The clerks at the grocery store must have thought I really liked pork based on the amount I would purchase weekly. How the food was presented mattered as well, sometimes Juanita would like a large chunk of meat and other times she wanted small pieces hand fed to her. At one point I even tried pureeing chicken and feeding her from a spoon. Despite my efforts it was clear Juanita was continuing to decline. Finally one day she just simply stopped eating. Juanita was one of the most amazing animals I have ever had the pleasure to work with. She had this way of looking directly into your soul. Losing Juanita around one year ago was one of the most difficult experiences I have had in my zookeeping career.
With Juanita gone Jake was again by himself. For several days every time I opened a den door he would come looking, and I imagine he was searching for his lost companion. I thought Jake might be depressed and stop eating, but he was more resilient than I had expected him to be. I think what helped the most was he still had a job to do. He needed to protect his territory from the lions across the way, and now the responsibility fell solely on him.
As the months wore on I really noticed how Jake was aging. He would stumble a little while he walked, he was definitely stiff when he got up, and his vision was getting worse. But even as an elderly lion he was still magnificent and when he roared I was reminded of his power. Despite his age-related changes his roar was still as it had been that first day I stood in front of him in awe. The day before Jake left us Dana and I were standing by his den, watching him eat his dinner which he appeared to be thoroughly enjoying. He looked up from his rabbit and roared for us again. I will never forget sharing that special moment with the other keeper who took care of him for most of his life and loved him just as much as I did. Dana joined in with Jake that evening, quietly singing the lioness’ part, completing the duet.
Although I know we will all miss him terribly, Jake’s memory will live on. A few months ago a friend forwarded me one of those email chains where there are photos set to music and wrote, “Check out the photo near the end.” As I watched the images of animals flash across the screen suddenly there was a photo of Jake and Juanita, sitting together on the large rock outcropping in the African Savanna exhibit. The beautiful lions that I loved so much were there for the whole world to see and enjoy. They were truly an inspiring couple, ambassadors to their wild lion cousins, and provided a sense of wonder to all who had the pleasure of seeing them.
Thank you beautiful Jake and Juanita for giving us so much joy and for showing us the regal and magnificent nature of lions. You have touched our lives forever.
Photos (from top): Dennis Conner/Woodland Park Zoo, Dennis Conner/Woodland Park Zoo, Mat Hayward/Woodland Park Zoo, Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo, Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo, Dennis Conner/Woodland Park Zoo, Mat Hayward/Woodland Park Zoo, Mat Hayward/Woodland Park Zoo, Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.