When you love someone as mighty as a lioness, you expect her to live forever…
So, I was quite shaken a few minutes ago when I learned that Nina, one of the lions I’ve loved in South Africa, died today.
I met Nina when I volunteered in a sanctuary near Marakele National Park in Thabazimbi, Limpopo, three years ago and helped care for the resident 13 white lions and 5 golden ones, 3 tigers – one of them a white Bengal, a cheetah and 2 caracals plus a hundred or so other exotics, from hyenas, black-backed jackals, monkeys and birds.
Nina was the first lion of the sanctuary owners, Mike and Chrissy Hodge. They’ve been breeding lions for the past 12 years, so I’ll assume Nina was around 12, still too young to leave this earth.
Nina was the queen of their household until she grew too big. She slept in Mike’s bed, washing his face and giving him a spit-bath daily at 3AM. She hid under his couch when he tried to evict her to live outdoors like a proper lioness when she was one and a half.
However, the family car remained as her property. She occupied the front seat on game drives and rode on top of their Rover whenever they took it out.
That’s how they came up with the Lion Mobile. They tied dead chickens to a cage on wheels, where they locked in visitors – before driving inside the enclosure Nina shares with their two hand-raised males, Freddie and Shamba.
Nina would jump on top of the vehicle and devour the chickens while her mates scrabbled over whatever’s left. Through the steel mesh and flying poultry feathers, visitors snapped away close-ups of her as she ate, jolting and bouncing, over their heads.
During my stay in the sanctuary, I spent most of my time playing with my white tiger Spirit and his white lioness, Mia – if I’m not bonding with the tigress sisters – Ronnie and Roxie or with Sabou, the cheetah. But I visit the rest of the big cats and the caracals at least twice a day, everyday. My favorite in the big pride of white lions was Tula though Tabitha always came to me for play. Mak, the white lion, sometimes responded to me…
Nina’s housemates, Freddie and Shamba, were polite to me. But Nina would sometimes get up to greet me and walk with me to the end of her perimeter fence enclosure. I never got in the cage with her but I talked to her everyday and would often lose myself in the depths of her amber eyes.
Come to think of it now, after seeing prides of wild lions in the African savannah, I noticed one thing different…
I can interact with wild lions. They respond to me, especially when I vocalize to them. But Nina and the other lions, who have lived with people, somehow have a very different look… Nina was not the first African lion I have known. I’ve cared for a couple of Gir lions in Thailand and a couple of Barbary lions in the U.S.A. before I came to Africa… The facial expressions of captive big cats seemed to be much more gentle than their wild counterparts who never knew the touch of humans.
I have always dreamed of returning to Africa… and I will one day… I intend t to go back to Thabazimbi though it won’t be the same without Nina.