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A Lion's Heart

The Humane Society of the United States

by Pepper Ballard

Samson’s 8th birthday party on Valentine’s Day will be a celebration of love as much as it is a celebration of life.

The African lion, rescued from the exotic pet trade as a cub, will celebrate the occasion Saturday at The Fund for Animals Wildlife Center in Ramona, Calif.—his home for all but the first three months of his life—with lion treats and lots of affection.

“He gives as much love back to us as we give him,” said Christine Jensen, a senior animal technician at the center. “He has a way of reaching into you and grabbing your heart.”

A Long Journey

Wildlife Center Assistant Manager Cindy Traisi says Samson’s charm has a lot to do with his story and the sympathy she and her staffers feel for his hard life. As much as Samson would like to believe he’s the king of the jungle, the African lion has never known the Serengeti. He has never known his pride or his mother for any length of time.

A product of the lucrative exotic animal trade in the U.S., Samson spent his infancy as a prop, traveling the Los Angeles-area mall circuit, posing for children’s photographs.

At three months old, the lion cub was confiscated by the California Department of Fish and Game, which alleged the animal’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. That’s when the wildlife center became Samson's permanent home. The wildlife center in Ramona is one of four direct animal care centers operated by The Fund For Animals, an affiliate of The Humane Society of the United States.

“I think the relationship we have with all of the animals here is bittersweet,” said Jensen, who helps care for Samson and the center’s 30 other resident wild animals.  “It’s very rewarding to know that you’re making their life as comfortable and enjoyable as you can, but every day it breaks your heart that they are behind bars and aren’t out free in the wild.”

To ensure as peaceful a habitat as possible for the animals, the center is closed to the public. Because it takes in native wildlife species, human interaction is limited so animals undergoing rehabilitation may be returned to the wild unaffected.

Celebrating Samson

As he grew, the lion displayed some conditions likely associated with poor breeding and husbandry practices common in the exotic pet trade: dwarfed hind legs and chronic kidney disease. To mitigate Samson's problems, the 350-pound cat is served a special diet, and his health is monitored constantly. 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.

Traisi said they make the best of what life Samson has left. And he gives them plenty to smile about. More like a dog than a cat, Samson is often photographed with his tongue sticking out in a pant and a single tooth, affectionately called his "snaggle tooth," jutting from his mouth. Jensen calls him "Otter Boy" because he likes to roll on his back, expose his belly and look around his enclosure for spectators. 

While Samson appears to be a playful stuffed toy, caretakers respect the fact that he is a wild animal and always unpredictable. None of the staff enters his enclosure with him at any time, and his enclosure is designed to be serviced with him safely contained.

The big cat is a favorite with everyone at the center, but he seems to hold a special place in his heart for Jensen, who lives on site.

“If I’m leaving and running late, and I can’t stop, he’ll roar and roar and roar,” she said. Likewise, if he sees that Jensen is walking toward him, he’ll stop everything else and wait for her.

Jensen said she’ll likely give Samson another stuffed animal for his birthday. Amazingly, Samson has managed to keep intact two stuffed animals—a baby tiger and a baby lion. Jensen said if she doesn’t get him a stuffed animal, she might get another toy to add to his collection: Samson also loves—maybe a little too much—his couch cushion named Sophie and a yellow barrel, which he uses as an amplifier or a drum.

“He sticks his head in it and roars, and it echoes throughout the valley, and he just thinks he’s hot stuff,” Traisi said. “He also sticks his butt in it and wags his tail.”

So, the birthday boy's friends of staff and volunteers will gather near his enclosure Saturday to celebrate his eight years with cake and ice cream, while the big cat enjoys his treats.

Samson only asks that his guests bring goodies for him to eat or checks made payable to The Fund for Animals Wildlife Center to help keep him and his fellow resident animals under the center’s loving care.

The Fund for Animals is an affiliate of The Humane Society of the United States. In 2005, the organizations formed an unprecedented partnership, expanding efforts to protect animals in the courts and provide for their veterinary, sanctuary, and rehabilitative needs at direct animal care facilities.

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