Smithsonian Zoo mourns death of 17-year-old African lion


Luke, the African lion pride patriarch at the Smithsonian National Zoo, has died aged 17.

The big cat was euthanized on October 19, according to a press release from the zoo. He had had health problems for several years.

« Luke was truly the ‘king’ of the Great Cats exhibit, » Craig Saffoe, one of the zoo’s curators, said in the statement. “He was gentle with his companions, Naba and Shera, and an extremely patient and protective father of the 13 cubs he fathered.

« Luke left a lasting legacy, not only in the cubs he contributed to the survival of his species, but also in the millions of visitors who were able to gain a deeper knowledge and appreciation of the African lions through whom he was as patriarch of his pride.

The lion had been suffering from “occasional discomfort and lameness in his right forelimb since 2016,” the statement said. The veterinary team performed a scan which found a lesion on his spine, but opted not to perform the surgery due to the risk of complications. Instead, he received non-surgical treatment for his spinal issues, including steroids, oral medications, deep tissue laser therapy and acupuncture.

Earlier in October, zookeepers noticed during a routine weigh-in that Luke had lost weight. During an examination on October 19, they found cystic masses throughout his liver and his spinal disease had progressed, causing several of his vertebrae to fuse together.

« Given these findings, Luke’s overall long-term quality of life was considered poor and the animal care team has decided to humanely euthanize him, » the zoo explained in the statement.

Luke was born on a private reserve in South Africa in 2005, the statement said. He was considered particularly valuable in the United States « because his genes were not represented in American zoos » when he arrived in Washington, DC in 2006.

Visitors can still see one of Luke’s companions, Shera, alongside her offspring at the National Zoo.

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