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'King Lucas' brings star quality to Hope Zoo

BY KIMBERLEY HIBBERT Sunday Observer writer hibbertk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, June 23, 2013    

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THE arrival Friday of five-year-old African lion Lucas at the Hope Zoo in Kingston was marked by the kind of excitement reserved for celebrities.

The enthusiasm, however, would not have been unfamiliar to Lucas as he's accustomed to being in the company of stars. Furthermore, the king of beasts would naturally expect royal treatment wherever he goes.

Lucas's exposure to stardom lies in the fact that he was owned by American Charlie Sammut, a man described as a modern-day Noah who — driven by his love for animals — founded Wild Things Animal Rental Inc in the late-1980s.

That company, which provided wild animals for the film industry, had its genesis in an educational programme called Wild Things run by Sammut.

According to Sammut, Wild Things Animal Rental Inc now houses more than 100 exotic animals "ranging from spiders to African Elephants".

The company operates on his 51-acre Vision Quest Ranch in the sun belt between Monterey and Salinas, California.

Sammut's attachment to his animals was obvious on Friday as he watched Lucas adapting to his new environment at the Hope Zoo.

"I miss him. I've had him for five years, since he was born, and I don't usually give away anything, so I'll miss him," Sammut said as he fought back the tears.

Sammut donated Lucas to Jamaica after learning that the zoo, which has been undergoing an impressive transformation led by businessman Kenny Benjamin, was searching for a lion.

Sammut said he trusted the operators of the zoo to look after Lucas and explained how he took the caretakers through repeated procedures on how to care for the lion daily.

"The response is great, the people are great. I looked at the enclosure and I was pleased, but I insisted that a few things were put in place for his safety as I know how hard it is to locate certain hardware materials," Sammut told the Jamaica Observer on Friday.

"I even had the caretakers acting like a lion, entering and leaving cages so they would know what to do and what not to do," Sammut explained.

"Though I'll miss him, I'm happy I made the decision as I can help to build and make the zoo come alive," Sammut said, adding that he expected Lucas to be comfortable with his new home within two days.

Curator of the zoo, Orlando Robinson, was more than happy to have Lucas as he said the zoo was not complete without a 'king'.

"Almost everyone who comes to the zoo wants to see a lion," he said. "People love lions and big cats. Our promo, 'The king is here', really fits the setting."

Robinson explained that part of the zoo's preservation programme was to incorporate African ancestry and heritage with the animals.

"Most of our animals here are a part of African heritage... we use them to teach our children and preserve our history," he said.

He added that although Lucas was tame, safety procedures were in place to prevent the big cat attacking his handlers.

"At no point will one person alone look after him. One will take him out of the enclosure while the other will clean the cage and vice versa. His enclosure is up to world standards as it was inspected and a safe containment is in place with strong steel bars," Robinson said.

Benjamin, chairman of the Hope Zoo Preservation Trust, was happy to have Lucas.

"Without a lion, you don't have a zoo. Every child, parent, and Rasta wants to see a lion in the zoo," he said. "Lucas is a beautiful lion that has been used in educational programmes, so I'm really happy he's here. We paid over US$60,000 for his shipment and his habitat but he is a good addition to the zoo."

Lucas fills a void created by the decision seven years ago to put the zoo's iconic African lion, Scrappy, to sleep.

Scrappy, who for 23 years greeted visitors to the zoo with his powerful roar, had developed a spinal disorder that caused a progressive loss of nerve function to his hind legs. Zoo officials said he was progressing towards paralysis and could no longer support himself.

On Friday, Denise Williams, director of corporate communications at Flow — one of the major sponsors of the Hope Zoo — said the project was an investment in Jamaican children's future as the island lacked many green spaces.

Williams noted that the zoo has made technology one of its top priorities and as such is equipped with wi-fi connections and flat-screen televisions.

In addition to Flow, the zoo receives major sponsorship from Jamaica National, the United Nations Development Programme and the Jamaica Observer.

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