Have you ever wanted to own a pet lion, but your wife won’t let you keep a 500-pound cat of prey in the house?
Well, Nicaragua’s national zoo is offering the next best thing. For a slight sponsorship fee ($35,000 to build a lion pit and $100 in monthly cat chow bills), the Nicaragua Zoo will let you name their new lion after yourself – and they’ll take care of cage cleanup for free.
“We’ll send photos and letters to let the sponsor know how their lion is doing,” says Marina Argüello, director of the Nicaragua Zoo. As an added visitation perk for the benefactor, Ms. Argüello also seems open to the idea of waiving the 15 córdoba ($0.64) park entrance fee.
The unnamed African lion, which came to Nicaragua thanks to a transoceanic cat swap that sent a pair of local tigrillos to the Berlin Zoo, is the newest resident of Nicaragua’s surprisingly engaging zoo and animal rescue center on Kilometer 16 of the Carretera Masaya.
The globe-trotting feline also has the delightful distinction of being one of the original 23 passengers on Blue Panorama’s lonely inaugural flight from Italy last week. That alone, perhaps, explains why the flight was so empty (if you had an African lion sitting behind you on the plane, you’d also want to put about 200 empty seats between you and it) and why the in-flight meal offering was “raw gazelle flanks and a side saucer of warm milk.”
The cat’s passage here on the first commercial flight from Rome to Managua also means that, for the time being, a statistically curious 4.3 percent of all visitors who have traveled to Nicaragua directly from Italy fit into the amusingly unexpected category of “African lion.”
A Lion among Ladies
The 14-month-old male lion will soon be pleased to learn that he was brought here to mate with a couple of fetching lionesses donated by the Guatemalan Zoo. To set the mood, zookeepers are already dimming the cage lights and piping in the song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from the Lion King soundtrack.
If the romantic rendezvous are successful, it will be the first time African lions have been bred in captivity in Central America, according to Argüello. A previous attempt in Nicaragua to breed a pair of elderly ring lions rescued from a traveling circus produced sad results, Argüello says.
But with a virile young lion king and a couple of flirty feline friends, the zoo is expectant about the love-connection possibilities. Still, considering the zoo doesn’t have enough money to provide for one lion, much less a plentiful pride, Argüello says the number of conjugal visits will be limited until some sort of sustainable financial plan or foster-care program is put into place.
Given Nicaragua’s financial limitations, scraping together another $35,000-plus in lion money won’t be an easy task. The government, historically, has not taken too much interest in providing for its animal friends. In 2003, the National Assembly temporarily cut all funding for the zoo, forcing the animals to take an unexpected hunger strike that ended after public outrage shamed lawmakers into once again providing a modest food stipend for their more loveable counterparts in the animal kingdom (Some pundits suggested that an acceptable – and perhaps preferred – alternative to congressional funding would have been to let the animals loose in the National Assembly, to thin the herd, so to speak. Then, as the big cats licked their whiskers and slept off a heavy meal, the monkeys could try legislating for a while and Nicaragua would welcome an unprecedented moment of peace, prosperity, and rule of law.)
The government currently provides about 40 percent of the zoo’s annual operating budget of $435,000, according to Argüello. The rest of the money comes from the private sector and other friends of the zoo.
Still, Argüello is hopeful that someone – or some business – with a fondness for felines will come forward and sponsor the new African kitty and his leonine appetite, before he sets his sights on the tapir’s cage.
To sponsor a lion, write zoo director Marina Argüello at firstname.lastname@example.org.
– A version of this story ran on the author's site, nicaraguadispatch.com.