ATTALLA, Ala. — Kazuma, a 14-year-old male African lion saved from a life of abuse in a problematic Guatemalan circus, found a new home this month at Tigers for Tomorrow at Untamed Mountain.
Susan Steffens-McCauley, executive director of the facility about an hour and a half south of Chattanooga, says the already 300-pound Kazuma is steadily gaining weight since he arrived about two weeks ago.
Undeterred by downpours on Thursday, Kazuma was smacking around a large, red plastic bobbin toy while Steffens-McCauley’s husband, Wilbur McCauley, slipped the furry king of the jungle small bites of food through the 10-foot high chain link fence and scratched his chin.
Kazuma exulted in the attention like a quarter-ton Alabama barn cat.
“He’s doing quite well; we’ve had him about two weeks now,” Steffens-McCauley said as the big cat stretched and watched his new human friends approach.
“What are you doing, Zuma?” she shouted to the lion who immediately recognized his name with a glance but didn’t stop playing with his new toys.
She first got a call from Guatemala in July about an abused lion and his need for a home, she said. A fundraising campaign from the first week in November to the end of the year generated the money and in-kind help to get Kazuma to his new home.
“It just became this huge community effort; DeKalb Co-op up the road gave us all the wood for his jungle gym, James & Co. [Antique Lumber] gave us all the wood for his den-box, Stephens Pipe & Steel Inc. donated every piece of steel and fence for his cage, which was about $10,000,” she said.
Students at nearby Crossville Elementary School raised over $1,200 and adopted Kazuma as their new mascot, she said.
Crossville Elementary officials said a program Steffens-McCauley and crew put on at the K-5 school generated the money.
“We charged $2 admission for the program,” Assistant Principal Tony Bright said. “All the money we took in we donated to the preserve.”
Bright predicted the preserve and the school’s link to it through Kazuma would benefit students for years to come.
Steffens-McCauley said that when she and her husband went to Guatemala to negotiate the transfer to the U.S., people there told them about seeing Kazuma in his cage mounted in the back of a pickup truck. The people gave accounts of seeing Kazuma left in his cage at self-serve commercial car washes while the truck was washed with a high-pressure hose, she said.
His life in the tiny cage left him with atrophied hindquarters and arthritis, she said.
With a final $5,000 matching grant in hand, the preserve finally had enough to pay to build a transport cage and pay for shipping Kazuma to the Atlanta airport, she said. Costs to get Kazuma to Alabama tallied about $45,000.
His brand-new enclosure at the preserve is a far cry from the conditions Kazuma experienced for 10 years of his life as a sideshow attraction in a Guatemalan circus operated as “Jordan Brothers,” according to officials at Tigers for Tomorrow and media reports in Guatemala.
According to the Guatemalan newspaper Siglo XXI, Kazuma was rescued June 16, 2011, from the Jordan Brothers circus.
“When Kazuma arrived at the zoo, he was in a very bad physical state with very serious malnutrition and he suffered from osteoarthritis in the hips due to the time he spent inside a very small cage. He looked sad, but he is a very calm lion and not aggressive at all,” veterinarian Andrea Castañeda told Siglo XXI. Castañeda works at La Aurora Zoo in Guatemala City where Kazuma spent the six months between his rescue and his trip to Alabama.
Castañeda told Siglo XXI that Kazuma was eating about 15 pounds of food supplemented with vitamins every day, gaining about 50 pounds by the time he was flown to the U.S. on Jan. 7.
This case is the first the government in Guatemala pursued to save a wild animal and find it a home to live out its life in safety, Steffens-McCauley said.
Guatemalan authorities gave the circus owner notice that Kazuma’s conditions must improve or they’d prosecute for animal cruelty, but the owner disappeared with the lion which forced officials to keep searching another year before they found him, according to Steffens-McCauley.
“When Kazuma was found near Antigua, and no negotiations were made, CONAP [El Consejo Nacional de Áreas Protegidas, the country’s equivalent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] called the police and with the judge order, confiscated Kazuma and sent him to La Aurora [Zoo],” she said.
KAZUMA SETTLES IN
Wilbur McCauley, the preserve’s director of animal care who has worked in the past with the lions and tigers in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand Hotel and Out of Africa Wildlife Park in Arizona, walks Kazuma around his cage several times a day and feeds him by hand for now, McCauley said.
Kazuma eats chicken, beef, pork and vitamin supplements. The big cat doesn’t like a jellylike supplement meant to help his arthritic hips, but he knows he has to so he get it out of the way first so he can eat the rest of his food, McCauley laughed.
Not everyone at the preserve was thrilled with the new resident.
Kel-El, another of seven African lions who were already at the preserve, can’t see Kazuma well but he knows an older male is in the neighborhood, Steffens-McCauley said. Lions can live up to 25 years.
McCauley, carrying a red bobbin toy that had been gnawed heavily on one end by the younger male cat, said the junior feline is a little upset by the new arrival but he’ll get used to it.
“That’s lion behavior; it’s just about territory,” McCauley said. Older male lions are the leaders of their prides who kick younger competitors out of the way; so, Kel-El instinctively feels competitive, he said.
But Kazuma only wants attention, food and play for now, Steffens-McCauley said, as a downpour drove the humans to cover on Thursday.
Kazuma and the other 140 or so predators, exotics and native wild animals need all the help they can get when it comes to food, shelter and toys to keep them happy, she said.
Besides lions, the preserve’s residents include tigers, cougars, leopards, an African serval, bears, timber wolves, a llama, wallaby, zebra, camel and a variety of others.
OTHER NEW ADDITIONS
Three other new residents at the preserve — not abused or rescued animals but gifts to the facility — are a trio of Bengal tiger cubs in the three color variations of the species, Steffens-McCauley said. The three bouncing playmates live together in an enclosure where they romp and play and watch the couple’s family dog with a predatory eye as he trots past.
But most animals at the preserve are like Kazuma, she said, coming from roadside zoos, circuses or facilities or people unable to care for them properly. All of them, including Kazuma, will call Untamed Mountain home for the rest of their lives, she said.