A gaunt-looking lioness tries to muster up enough strength to lap up water as a caretaker sadly assesses her emaciated figure. When rescuers found the feline, she was at death’s door. But sometimes, as her caretakers discovered, miracles can come from unexpected places.
In 2009 the U.S. Department of Agriculture succeeded in saving a lioness, Sheila, who had been badly treated at an entertainment center in Texas. The establishment was found to be exploiting such animals at private events, and Sheila had been neglected almost to the point of death.
Indeed, the USDA advised the In-Sync Exotics Wildlife Rescue and Educational Center in Wylie, Texas – which houses abandoned, abused or unwelcome wild cats – that saving her could be a long shot. In fact, they said a merciful death was, sadly, her best option.
This was because Sheila, who was not much older than a year when rescued, could scarcely eat, drink or walk. “She had very little muscle coordination, and thus, when she walked, her legs would slip out from under her,” an In-Sync statement said of her terrible condition.
Unfortunately, Sheila’s case was so bad that no sooner had she gotten to the center than the keepers assumed she was on her way out. The weary lioness was throwing up and pretty much immobile. But, for the time being, her guardians persevered.
“For two weeks, I had to go in with Sheila and hand-feed her,” said In-Sync CEO Vicky Keahey. The lioness’ head bobbed towards the right and had to be supported, so caretakers propped it up over a pail of water so that she could drink from it.
All too often, the exotic pet trade in the U.S. can be lethal for the animals involved. This is partly because they are frequently transported in inhumane ways – both furtively and illegally, to avoid detection. As a result, they rarely end up in the hands of keepers who can cater to their care requirements – much as in Sheila’s case…
A special big cat, Sheila has a unique coloration which she gets from a dormant gene dubbed the color-inhibitor or chinchilla gene. It’s indigenous to a territory in South Africa called Timbavati.
In-Sync found that the Sheila was suffering from toxoplasmosis as well as a major lack of Vitamin A. Toxoplasmosis is a parasite which can transfer through blood. And although it typically doesn’t affect humans, it can be fatal in cats – even big ones like Sheila.
Hence, the caretakers promptly got the sick lioness on an antibiotic treatment. And soon Sheila began to get better. Yet that’s not the only thing that turned her life around…
The lioness’ amazing story continued, even after she seemed to be on the mend. In fact, Sheila wasn’t the only lion retrieved from the abusive entertainment center in Texas. Just before saving her, In-Sync had rescued a male lion who went by the kingly name of Kahn.
Prior to his rescue, Kahn – who was then aged six – was a show animal. He was carted off to special events to dazzle and amuse guests. Unsurprisingly, then, when he arrived at the center, he was belligerent about food and had gnawed the end of his tail, apparently owing to anxiety.
Clearly underfed, the male lion initially weighed 100 pounds less than he should have as well as having endured several serious bone problems. Still, he got better and adapted.
People at the center were impressed by how good-natured Kahn was despite his injuries and weak condition. Nevertheless, he still hobbles on his forelimbs, and yet he has a new incentive to pick up the pace…
To help Kahn more easily reach the height of his den, his guardians at the center built a new and improved set of cinder-block stairs for him. And his new home has some other perks, too!
It wasn’t long before the center’s new lion cages were erected. Consequently, Kahn and Sheila – who had been rescued at different times from the same dismal dwelling – became neighbors in this happy new abode.
Then something both magical and romantic happened. “Sheila spent the next few months showing off for Kahn, and Kahn strutted his stuff for her,” Keahey said, clearly catching a whiff of attraction in the ether.
Love was indeed in the air, so Sheila had to be sterilized to prevent “happy accidents.” Next, the caretakers cautiously introduced the flirtatious pair by what they described as “dates.”
And, as with human courtship, this evolved into unchaperoned time together and overnights for the lovesick lions. “After three months of dating, we let them get ‘married,’” said In-Sync’s Keahey.
These days, Sheila and Kahn share a blissful home – with the lioness ruling the roost and the lion making sure no other competitive big boy cats get too close to his “bride.” And surely, after all they’ve endured, they deserve their companionship and care. Who said true love only happens in the movies?