Couple places "pet" lions in NJ sanctuary

CUB CRAZY
How one family turned its home into a lion’s den

By VIRGINIA ROHAN
The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)
Posted on Mon, Aug. 21, 2006

Porsche, go over and give Baje a kiss. Go ahead. Give him a kiss.”

Gerry Friedman says this several times before Porsche, resting contentedly, slowly rises, ambles over to her massive baby boy and starts licking the top of his magnificent maned head. The two nuzzle, then close their eyes and curl up together in the sun.

With obvious pride, Gerry says, “You can talk to them like I’m talking to you.”

It’s a thrilling display — the kind most of us never expect to see, much less up close. A photographer captures the scene, and Gerry’s husband, Joe Friedman, checks the digital image — and beams. As the longtime executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission, he recognizes a Kodak moment when he sees one. It’s another great photo for his wife’s Brag Book.

The couple realize that their tale is unusual. Joe has even given it a title: “I call it ‘Born Friedman.'”

This really is a love story. It’s about two soul mates who came together six decades ago, raised their children and then fell in love all over again — with a playful little four-pound fuzz ball named Duke, who lived for an enchanted time in their Upper Montclair, N.J., home.

Duke grew up to be a majestic African lion. And though he has been gone 11 years, his legacy lives on. Porsche, now 23, was Duke’s mate, and 15-year-old Baje (pronounced BAH-zhee) is their son — and the Friedmans are still utterly devoted to their lions.

Every weekend they pack up coolers and make the one-hour drive from their home to Popcorn Park Zoo in Forked River, N.J., where Porsche and Baje reside in unmistakable comfort.

“Joe and Gerry are here every single Saturday morning,” says John Bergmann, the director of Popcorn Park. “They bring their lunch, they bring treats for Porsche and Baje, and they spend the whole day with their animals. That’s devotion.”

Their routine starts when they arrive around 10 a.m. Porsche is waiting to greet them.

“She gets right by that fence, and she’s watching that gate, knowing they’re going to come through,” Bergmann says. “I always thought it was strange, like she knew what day it is. She doesn’t do it every morning. She does it when she knows they’re coming. It’s amazing.”

Joseph Friedman and Geraldine Michaelis met at Warner Bros. in the mid-1940s. She was secretary to the head of the publicity department. He had just gotten out of the service and was in the executive training program.

They married, 59 years ago, and raised three children but no pets. Though they were an animal-loving clan, Joe had severe allergies to dog and cat dander.

After the kids were grown, the Friedmans went on a dream trip — an African safari.

“When they came back, my father and mother were a little different,” recalls their son Larry Friedman, a Southern California ad executive. “It was, like, ‘Wow, that was amazing.'”

Their one regret was that they hadn’t been able to get out of the safari vehicles to touch the animals. Joe, by then working at Paramount, mentioned this to a friend at Warner Bros. in New York.

“He said, ‘Hey, listen, we got this place, Jungle Habitat. You can go up there and touch all you want,'” Joe recalls.

Dick Needleman, who was running Warner Bros. Jungle Habitat, a safari-theme park in West Milford, N.J., went one step further, suggesting the Friedmans might be able to take home a lion cub “for research purposes,” Joe says.

On a Friday in 1975, they were at Jungle Habitat, getting feeding instructions from the park’s veterinarian, Dr. Hubert Paluch (who now, by coincidence, tends to the animals at Popcorn Park). Says Paluch: “It was just a matter that they were working on seeing how they (the lion cubs) would be able to adapt, being hand-raised and taken care of, and if necessary, being brought back into a group and reintroduced back with another animal and/or a pride.”

“He had Duke in an incubator. He was 10 days old, and he weighed four pounds,” Joe says.

The Friedmans brought Duke home in a shoe box, and Joe headed off to work, a little nervously. “When I came home, he was a member of the family,” he says. “Wherever Gerry walked, he was walking right around with her.”

Gerry fondly recalls how their mailman loved to come in and play with Duke — on those days, “people got their mail two hours late” — and how the little lion would splash Joe with water as he shaved in the morning and wait for him near the front door in the evening, knowing it would soon be time to romp around with the master of the house.

“The cub was very playful. You could get down on the floor and play with him,” says Larry Friedman, who was then living in Manhattan with his wife.

Remarkably, Joe never had an adverse reaction.

“My father is so allergic, but not to the lions,” daughter Judy Ivory says.

Gerry proudly shows photos of her children and her grandchildren. But she also has that Brag Book, filled with amazing photos of Duke. There he is wearing a birthday hat as he sits before the chopped-meat “cake,” on a revolving musical plate, that Gerry made for his six-month birthday.

“Duke was cute and wonderful and cuddly. It was a learning experience for everyone — bathing him in the big sink in the basement, feeding him with a bottle,” says daughter Barbara Friedman, the only one of the children who was still at home at the time. “For all the people who were invited to see him, he never hurt one person ever.”

Though Duke got lots of exercise running up and down their home’s three flights of stairs, Joe also took him for walks on a leash. “I’d go out early in the morning — 5:30, 6 o’clock — when there was nobody around, and I’d run him up and down the street,” says Joe. By the time Duke got to be nine months, he was about the size of a large dog.

“Gerry felt that we had upset his lifestyle enough and that rather than being around human beings, he should go back and be around his brother and sister and the bears,” Joe says. “And so we took him back. We were now so madly in love with him, we used to go up there once or twice a week to visit.”

In 1976, barely four years after Jungle Habitat opened, Warner Bros. decided to close down the park and sell the animals. The Friedmans bought Duke as well as a female named Amber, paying $1 each for the lions to make the deal legal.

After temporarily boarding them with Animal Actors in Glen Gardner, N.J., the Friedmans moved the two to a place in Maryland. Every other week, Joe and Gerry made the 4½-hour drive to spend the entire weekend with their lions.

In 1991, Duke’s third mate, Porsche, gave birth to twin boys — Baje and Jaz (who died unexpectedly in 2003).

By 1995, Duke was suffering from kidney problems. The Friedmans tried to save him with dialysis, administered under anesthesia by the head of the Baltimore Zoo, but after each treatment, Duke was a little weaker.

“It was my wife who made the decision and said he’s going to go with dignity,” Joe says.

Gerry held Duke in her arms as he was euthanized.

“It was like losing a family member,” her husband says.

Having grown dissatisfied with the Maryland operation, the Friedmans arranged to transfer Porsche and “the boys” to Popcorn Park almost eight years ago. Joe is on its board of directors.

“We’re very, very grateful that we were able to find this place,” Gerry says.

Around 6 p.m., the Friedmans start preparing to leave. But first they give Porsche and Baje raw steaks, followed by another treat — vanilla ice cream, hand-fed by plastic spoon through a chain-link fence.

This tradition began years ago when they were visiting Duke at Jungle Habitat.

“Gerry had an ice cream cone with her. And he came over and started to lick it,” Joe says. “That was the beginning. And everyone since has liked ice cream.”

A visitor marvels at their extraordinary, decadeslong commitment to their lions.

Gerry simply smiles and says: “The love that we gave, we got back tenfold.”

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