It wasn’t Ziv the lion’s day.
He lounged in the shade under a tree at the back of the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo’s lion enclosure, languidly ignoring the ducks and peacocks who scampered close to chatter mockingly at him.
A different male ruled this territory a year earlier. Lider, who was put down at age 16 last September because of his deteriorating health, would have chased the birds away, said Dennis Smith, head of the zoo’s carnivore department. In fact, the feathered tormenters knew not even to approach him.
“Of course, he was the king of the zoo,” said Sigalit Dvir-Hertz, spokeswoman at the zoo.
Lider was extremely popular with visitors, she said. When the lion died, many people called the zoo or wrote letters to offer condolences and say they would miss him.
This was Lider’s kingdom. And Ileniya, now 16, was his queen.
But it’s not Ziv’s kingdom. Not yet.
The two-and-a-half-year-old Asiatic lion was brought to Jerusalem from Sweden late in January, where Smith said he was often kept inside, in a back room, especially during the harsh winters. Originally named Gir for the Gir Forest National Park in India — the home of most of the remaining wild Asiatic lions — he now goes by Ziv. Several months into his time in Jerusalem, he’s still not entirely sure what to do with his new space.
He’s had a rough start. While traveling from Sweden, Ziv was in a box for 24 hours and was scratched up his face and eye.
“He looked like an old man, believe me,” Smith said. “But now, he looks real nice.”
During his first days inside the Jerusalem zoo’s space for the lions, he prowled the cages all day.
“It was awful, really,” Smith said. “But it’s what lions do in a new place.”
The first few times Ziv was let outside into his lair, he waited for the first opportunity to come back inside — and when he did, he’d be panting as though he’d run a race, Smith said. The crowds, eager to see him, were upsetting to him. A tractor driving by was enough to send him into a panicked sprint.
Lately, though, he calmly spends most of the day outside.
Ziv’s health is good — he eats 20 kilograms of chicken and beef, fortified with vitamins, minerals and calcium, every other day. But adjusting to his new home is going to take a little longer for this lion.
The zoo built a new “table” for him — but he doesn’t use it. His enclosure gives him ample space to stroll or run, but he seems content to stay in one spot.
Zookeepers keep Ziv and Ileniya separated; introducing lions in captivity is a long, involved process.
One of the first times the lions saw each other — albeit with bars in between them — Ileniya feinted a lunge, frightening the much younger male.
Ziv’s position as Jerusalem’s new male lion is still as immature as his half-grown mane, but he is improving, Smith said.
He and Ileniya have started to show a bit of interest in each other, sharing glances and sniffs through the bars separating them.
“I did see them put their noses together,” Smith said. “I saw him talk to Ileniya, making a funny noise.”
The older female’s age and poor health will probably prevent breeding between the two, but Smith is going to keep a close eye on them — and he’ll still keep them separate for now. He plans to set up cameras to more closely monitor their interactions at night.
Smith is a patient keeper, and his reputation goes beyond the zoo. Although he loves his lions, he also has a passion for birds, and several times, customs officials who have intercepted illegally smuggled exotic birds at Ben-Gurion Airport have brought them to him. One he still cares for is a Common Hill Myna, an Asian breed known for its speaking abilities. This particular bird is blind and doesn’t speak, but it still responds to Smith when he lifts it and speaks to it.
That patience is benefiting Ziv. The lion, too, responds to Smith’s voice now. And whenever he sees the keeper approach on his red bicycle, the big cat perks up and follows the motion with his eyes.
Ziv needs more time, Smith said. But he also needs a girl.
Breeding is especially important for Asiatic lions, which are nearing extinction. Only about 300 remain in the wild, with about the same amount in captivity, compared to more than 1,500 African lions living in captivity.
“With a female, I think he might calm down,” Smith said. “But it’s very hard to find one.”
In the meantime, the keeper hopes the lion will continue to acclimate to Jerusalem, build more of a relationship with Ileniya — even if it’s never a romantic one — and become more used to the crowds clamoring to see him.
Sooner or later, this will be his kingdom.