True story: when I was a little girl we had a pet lion. Her name was Sheba and we were her foster family for several months. I was only five or six so my memory is a little fuzzy on the time but I remember curling up in her golden fur like it was a blanket, spraying both of us with the water hose when it got too hot and her tackling me into the wet grass with paws as big as my entire body. I remember never once being afraid…at least of her.
She attached to us kids like we were her own and, one day, when a stray dog wandered onto the acreage, she became determined to protect her cubs. She pounced on top of me, my head pushing up into her warm belly, her fur blocking me from view. I remember trying to peek out from the fuzz to see what was gong on but she would have none of it and pretty much plastered me to the ground with her weight so I couldn’t move. And could barely breathe, if truth be told. But even then I wasn’t afraid because I knew she was trying to protect me.
In getting ready to visit Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge and Big Cat Sanctuary Sheba has been on my mind a lot and a recent read made me think about it even harder. My son and I have been reading up on the animal black market and the atrocities that happen to surplus animals and cast offs. It’s such a depressing thing to read about how these animals are cast off from legitimate places (including well known zoos) and then sold for all sorts of things like roadside attractions (Tony the Tiger is a current example as his lawsuit is still ongoing) or even overseas as food (bear liver is considered a delicacy…ewwwww and…. poor PoohBear). The worst offenders, however, are private collectors who quickly learn that a little bear cub doesn’t stay so cute and cuddly for long. For a quite boring but in depth look try reading Animal Underworld: Inside America’s Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species by Alan Green. It’s an unflinching account of what happens to these poor creatures even amongst the most respected of American facilities. It made me wonder how we ended up with her to begin with and what happened to her when she left.
Unfortunately, both my parents died decades ago and they are the only ones who could have enlightened me. My brother knew that we’d received Sheba because she had been sold to a zoo and they needed time to get her facility ready before they could pick her up. But where she came from was a toss up. A local zoo had recently gone belly up so it’s possible she was an orphan of that venture but he also remembered a small petting zoo at a nearby tourist place that boasted of having a tame lion which also went out of business at the same time. I’ve searched for records and asked around town but no one has any memory of either (or just aren’t saying). We do know she was privately owned because it was a friend of my father’s that had asked us to watch her but what involvement he had in either of those ventures (if any at all) is anyone’s guess.
When she left I was, of course, heartbroken. I remember the big truck that came to get her and the driver giving me a tour of it so I would know she was in safe hands. I remember him lecturing about how I had to get out before they put her in because she wasn’t going to like it and could react badly. Not sure how it happened but I ended up leading her into the truck, taking off her pink spotted collar and giving her a big hug and kiss before walking around her to leave the truck.
After reading about the animals in that book, though, I can’t help but wonder if she really was in safe hands. It’s a terrible heartache to think I may have unwittingly played a role in some black market sale of our beloved Sheba and I wish there was some way to find out how her story ended. But like many other things of childhood, I guess I’ll never know. I can only take solace in knowing that at least for one summer of her life she was loved and cared the way she deserved to be.
Circa 1970 something
From a Polaroid Scan