Visitors to the Sacramento Zoo can now get up close and personal with its resident pair of African lions, Cleo and Kamau, with the reopening of one of its flagship exhibits.
The new expanded enclosure for the zoo’s lions is surrounded in wall-to-ceiling glass, allowing guests to get “nose-to-nose” with the big cats and doing away with the old mesh net and fence barrier. It is also twice the size of the old exhibit, giving the lions ample room to roam.
“The only thing that separates you from lions now is an inch and a half of glass,” said zoo spokeswoman Laurel Vincent. “This is the first time ever at the zoo that we’ve been able to get that close to them.”
Lions have been a mainstay of the zoo for more than 90 years, and one of its most popular animal exhibits, said Sacramento Zoo Director Jason Jacobs. Since 1961, lions have lived in the same grotto in the heart of the zoo, and “what was state of the art in 1961 does not meet modern zoological practices,” Jacobs said.
“They’re like young cats since we opened this up,” Jacobs said. “They’re using muscles they’ve never used before.”
The exhibit connects the lions’ old home with the enclosure previously used by the zoo’s tigers with an elevated crossing area surrounded by glass barriers. The Sacramento Zoo returned its last tiger, a Sumatran tiger named Jillian, to the San Francisco Zoo in 2018 after she had struggled to adjust to her new home.
“With her leaving, it was kind of a no-brainer for us to go ahead and expand the space for the lions instead of bringing in another tiger,” Vincent said.
The lions haven’t been on exhibit since May, when renovations for the new exhibit began.
“We’ve been waiting months for it,” said Ashleh Rychen, a North Highlands resident, who took her 22-month-old daughter Baylieh to the zoo Tuesday morning. “Every time she comes here she’s looking (around) like, ‘Are they open yet?’”
Earlier in the day, a group of young girls visiting the zoo were delighted when Cleo hopped up to a viewing window and swatted at their hands from behind the glass, triggering shrieks of laughter.
“I like the lion because it scares me,” said Kathrine Cubol, 7. Her friends giggled in agreement.
The glass barriers were donated by River City Glass, and most of the construction was done in-house, Jacobs said. The crossing area will offer shade for the lions during the summer, and includes heaters for the winter.
The new exhibit comes as the zoo looks to find a new larger home outside of Land Park, with officials worried that the zoo could lose its national accreditation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Over the years, the zoo has stopped housing hippopotamuses, baboons, elephants and bears because of facility constraints.
“It was sad we had to lose our tigers. We also had tigers in our collection for over 90 years, but that’s why we’re looking at relocating the zoo,” Jacobs said.
The Sacramento City Council commissioned feasibility studies for three potential new locations — the Bing Maloney golf course in south Sacramento, the former Sleep Train Arena in North Natomas and an empty portion of North Natomas Regional Park — earlier this year. Jacobs said he expects those studies to finish by the end of the year.
The new glass barriers could be reused at a new location, Jacobs said.
Earlier this year, the Sacramento Zoo opened a new exhibit featuring a pair of new okapis, and the zoo has begun construction on a new exhibit to bring alligators to the facility, Jacobs said.
Jacobs said since the new exhibit was unveiled over the weekend, the zoo has received an outpouring of response from guests, who are spending more time learning about and interacting with the pair of lions.
“They’re living ambassadors for their cousins in Africa,” Jacobs said, adding that a portion of the zoo’s admission fee goes towards supporting CLAWS, a conservation group that helps wild lions in Northern Botswana.
“When you see lions nose to nose through the glass like our guests do today that creates feelings of stewardship, it’s different than when you see them through mesh,” he said.