February 14, 2011
Samson the Lion Turns 10 on Valentine's Day
See how he celebrates, and find out what's on a lion's birthday "wish list"»
by Julie Hauserman
With a “cake” fit for a jungle king, Samson the African Lion celebrates his 10th birthday on Valentine’s Day at the Fund for Animals Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Ramona, Calif.
Every year is a miracle for this magnificent feline, who has genetic deformities due to inbreeding for the exotic pet trade. An African lion in captivity might normally live to be about 16, but Samson’s health problems have made it hard to predict how long he’ll live.
“Valentine's Day holds a special meaning for us—another birthday for Samson, another year he has battled his kidney disease and won,” says Senior Wildlife Caretaker Christine Jensen. “The joy he gets from his toys and his treats is extra special on Valentine's as we celebrate his life with him.”
Samson spent his infancy as a prop, traveling the Los Angeles-area mall circuit, posing for children’s photographs. At three months old, he was confiscated in 2001 by the California Department of Fish and Game, which alleged that Samson’s owner and photographer were illegally using the cub to turn a profit.
Like the majority of exotic animals born in captivity, returning Samson to a life in the wild was not an option. The wildlife center became Samson's permanent home.
“He spends his days lounging in the sun,” says Wildlife Rehabilitation Center Director Ali Crumpacker. “His favorite toy continues to be a large plastic yellow barrel which he sticks his head inside of and roars. Why? We have no idea. This winter, he liked to drag a Christmas tree around, which he would flop onto and roll over.” (Watch a video tour of the center and catch a glimpse of Samson playing with his Christmas tree»)
Samson is handsome and magnificent—but a bit shorter than other lions. His dwarfed legs still carry a 400-pound lion body with regal attitude. He gets medication to strengthen his joints and ease any discomfort. Samson also has chronic kidney disease, so he gets a special diet, and his health is carefully monitored.
For the caretakers at the wildlife center, his 10th birthday feels extra special, like a milestone. On Valentine’s Day, staffers will gather quietly near his enclosure and eat cake, and Samson will get a cake formed out of a giant ice block carved and decorated with Samson’s favorite treats. As for presents, the wildlife center hopes animal lovers will check out Samson’s special “wish list” on Amazon, which has various supplies that are needed to care for animals at the center.
"Samson is a very popular resident here,” says Cat Caretaker Rachel Filtz. “It doesn't matter if I’m in a good mood or a bad mood, as soon as I see Samson’s fuzzy head or hear his massive roar, my heart is lifted and everything else on my mind just fizzles away. He tends to have that effect on people."
While Samson appears playful, caretakers respect that he is a wild animal and always unpredictable. None of the staff enter his enclosure with him at any time. His enclosure is designed to be serviced with him safely contained.
Recently, Samson has developed a very unusual bond with some neighborhood residents.
“The cows next door bring their newborn calves to meet Samson,” Crumpacker said. “The adult cows leave their calves against the fence line, closest to Samson’s enclosure. Samson could really care less about their proximity, but we like to think the cows have decided he is their protector and they can safely check their young ones into Samson’s ‘babysitting duty’ while they go off and graze for the day. Because really, what wild predator is going to approach a baby cow that is sitting near a lion?”