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Potawatomi Zoo bringing back the roar with new pride of lions

Amid lots of construction the past few years, the Potawatomi Zoo hasn’t always been a quiet place. But one sound has been missing.

The unmistakable, spectacular roar of the lion.

It’s been about a year and a half since the zoo had a lion. For nearly two decades, males Tango and Onyo had become Potawatomi Zoo icons. But Onyo died of old age in December 2021 at age 20, and before that, in November 2019, Tango passed away just shy of age 18.

But as part of the zoo’s Big & Loud capital campaign to bring in giraffes and lions, the zoo recently took delivery of three new lions: male Kembe and females Shtuko and Shaba, who are sisters. The trio are about 10 years old and have lived together since another U.S. facility rescued them as cubs from an unsafe situation in South Africa in 2013.

The zoo’s general curator, Jami Richard, says they seem healthy and are settling in nicely so far.

“We’re so excited to have lions back at the zoo,” Richard says. “When we lost our two boys that were here for 20 years just due to old age, it was just different not having lions around here. You get so used to hearing that roar across the zoo and it just seems so quiet. So now that we have a pride of lions back, just hearing the roar, it gives you goosebumps.”

They’ll live in a space that used to house chimpanzees but has been renovated for lions with a donation from the Wilma and Peter Veldman family.

Kembe, weighing about 400 pounds, eats about eight pounds of raw ground beef a day. Shtuko and Shaba, at about 300 pounds, eat about five to six pounds. They’re also given bones to gnaw on weekly to keep their teeth and jaws strong. And Kembe also likes to snack on rabbits and chickens.

For now, visitors can only view the big cats through glass because they must be quarantined for 30 days to make sure they haven’t brought any diseases into the zoo. That timing will work out well because the zoo is building a new outdoor lion area that should be finished in early to mid June.

Richard says word about the pride’s arrival has spread quickly around town since the zoo posted their pictures recently on their Facebook page.

“I’ve heard so many people that I just know, like in passing, say hey I heard your lions came! How are they doing? How are they adjusting? Everybody missed them. Our community missed having lions present.”

Even limited to indoors, the lions were already exciting children who visited the zoo Wednesday and crowded around the large windows for a look.

A field trip from Mishawaka Catholic Schools included 8-year-old Mackenzie McAuley, who says she’s eager to return in a month when the outdoor area is finished.

“It’s pretty cool and I love the males,” Mackenzie says. “I don’t know, I just like their personality and I like their roar.”

Mackenzie was also excited to hear another thing. The zoo has received a breeding recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the main accrediting body for zoos. That means, for the first time in decades, maybe ever, the zoo’s lions could have cubs.

“This is new for Potawatomi Zoo and for our staff,” Richard says. “We’re just excited to get the possibility. The females were implanted with a birth control implant so the chances go down after you take out a birth control implant, so there is the possibility that it might not work. But we know that Kembe has already shown interest in breeding her and has done some breeding behaviors, so we’re hopeful in removing that implant because it’s not unknown. Other AZA zoos have had success breeding after an implant. So we’re hopeful.”