Arguably one of the most impressive statues found in Elephant Odyssey’s Mammoth Plaza at the San Diego Zoo is that of the American lion. Weighing in at almost half a ton, this massive carnivore is the largest variety of lion known to man. The American lion also once had one of the largest ranges of any mammal, with individuals living from the Yukon Territory in Canada all the way down through Peru. Yet as impressive as this life-sized model is, it is almost impossible to compete with the magnificence of its Elephant Odyssey modern-day counterparts. Just across the way from the enormous American lion statue lives a beautiful pair of African lions.
This new exhibit allows for unprecedented views of the always charismatic M’bari and Etosha. Whether they are sleeping under an acacia tree, perched on top of a rocky outcropping, or resting peacefully in their glass-fronted cave, you are sure to enjoy an unforgettable view of them. The glass-fronted cave area has quickly become a favorite spot for both cats and guests alike. Not only does the cave offer air conditioning for those warm summer days, but it also comes equipped with large “hot rocks” on the floor. Much of the summer was spent lounging in the cave’s cool air-conditioned breezes, and now as it is cooling off, the hot rocks are the place to be. With the flip of a switch, the man-made rocks can warm up to a toasty 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Celsius). The cave also offers an extremely close view of the cats, with just a piece of glass between you and these amazing carnivores. The intimate nature of this entire exhibit allows for an opportunity to connect with these animals as you have never been able to do before.
Just about every day I hear another guest exclaim that they have never been so close to a lion before. But this close proximity to our cats has come at a price: with this exhibit the San Diego Zoo’s Spray Zone was born! It seems M’bari has a fondness for spraying anything within his reach with urine, and with a range of nearly 10 feet (3.5 meters), guests often find themselves in the line of fire. Two signs strategically placed outside this exhibit remind our guests of this funny but messy habit of his.
If the names M’bari and Etosha sound familiar, don’t be surprised. These two made their home at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park for almost five years before coming to the Zoo. Both were original members of the fantastic Lion Camp exhibit and were rather popular with both keepers and guests.
At 430 pounds (195 kilograms), M’bari is the largest cat in the Zoo’s collection. His enormous head, gigantic paws, and near-perfect mane wow the crowds on a daily basis. Etosha may not be the largest of all the cats, but she is definitely a contender for the cat with the largest heart. I have had the honor of working with many cats over the years, but I don’t think that I have known one as “lovey” and sweet as Etosha. Her “good morning” vocalizations always start my day off right. Both cats are wonderful additions to the Zoo’s already amazing animal collection, and certainly both cats have contributed to the big success of Elephant Odyssey by helping to represent their not-so-distant cousin, the American lion.
Jacob Shanks is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.
Listen to M’bari and Etosha greet Jacob from their bedroom: