NOTE: The white fur color comes from a recessive gene. White lions and white tigers are very rare in nature and in captivity are almost exclusively the result of inbreeding, since inbreeding increases the chance that the gene will be expressed.
Rare lion is zoo’s pride and joy
Big white cat drawing crowds in Attleboro
By Brian R. Ballou, Globe Staff – October 15, 2008
ATTLEBORO – With a spread in People Magazine, daily admirers, and a staff that tends to his every need, Ramses, a rare white lion plucked from a South African zoo last December to keep company with two female lions at the Capron Park Zoo, is living large.
But despite being the king of the jungle, he’s not quite in charge inside the 4,800 square-foot cage he shares with Kayla and Nyala, two 4-year-old lionesses.
“Oh, the girls will put him in his place,” said zoo director Jean Benchimol, moments after Ramses, a playful 2-year-old who weighs almost 450 pounds and stands more than 8 feet tall on his hind legs, attempted to steal a stuffed lion from Nyala’s grasp. With a deep roar, Nyala sent Ramses on his way.
Ramses is the latest addition to the 8-acre municipal zoo, the smallest such facility in New England. And the lion’s presence is boosting attendance figures that have been on the upswing since 2005, when Benchimol arrived from a similar size zoo in Victoria, Texas. Attendance this year has already reached 100,000, with averages of 20,000 in the peak months of April through July. The zoo is open seven days a week and costs $5.50 for adults and $3.75 for children ages 3 to 12.
Benchimol said, “I love challenges. I did it in Victoria, and when I came here, we all set our sights on making this zoo more attractive.” She was referring to the 14-person zoo staff. The zoo operates on a $1.5 million budget. Staff salaries are paid by the city, and other money that comes in through fund-raising, donations, and sponsorships goes toward zoo improvements.
“We decided to roll up our sleeves and get this place going again,” Benchimol said. “We’ve been able to renovate every single exhibit, and once we started making improvements, the public responded.”
A unique exhibit called Lemur Island is scheduled to open next April. Patrons will be able to walk out onto a boardwalk that appears to float above a large pond. Two grassy islands were built on either side of the pond, future homes to six wide-eyed lemurs from Madagascar. The zoo currently features 175 animals of 60 species, up from 75 animals of 30 species a few years ago. There are snow leopards, sloth bears, and other exotic animals, but yesterday, the big draw was Ramses.
Children remarked on the size of the lions and compared them to animated characters. Parents and other adult visitors stood in awe, taking pictures through a wire fence. And zookeepers attempted to coax the trio to play, throwing empty boxes, balls, and other toys over a high perimeter fence. With powerful bursts of acceleration, Ramses charged some of the items, muscles rippling, from forelegs to hindquarters, beneath his white coat.
Zookeepers described him as playful, not one to pace, and generally comfortable in captivity.
Jennifer Guidice of Norfolk, a regular visitor, stood in front of the lion exhibit with daughters, Jessica, 4, and Mikaela, 6. “The lion is a nice addition. This place has been getting better and better and it’s the perfect place to take children,” Guidice said. “The kids perk up when they see the lions.”
A zookeeper threw several turkey legs over the fence. Jessica and Mikaela asked their mother what the lions were chewing on. “It’s like giving a dog a bone,” she told her daughters.
The article in People Magazine, titled “Zoo Superstars,” featured animals from zoos across the country, including a baby elephant, an orangutan, a panda, a gorilla, and Ramses. After an article also appeared yesterday in a local newspaper, the buzz around Ramses was high, but the big cat seemed to take all the attention in stride, at times curiously staring at camera lenses.
The three lions appeared to get along, even when Ramses attempted to interrupt the females at play or rest. The hope is that Ramses will mate with either Kayla or Nyala, sisters who both have a brownish-orange coats but carry the recessive gene that creates white lions. There is a 75 percent chance that offspring will have the same kind of coat as Ramses.
Estimates of how many white lions there are in the world vary from less than 100 to more than 500.