The Lion King arrives on the Coast

The lions of Central Coast Zoo, recently acquired from Stardust Circus relaxing in retirement.

Central Coast Zoo at Wyong Creek has welcomed six sibling African lions into a new facility.

The exhibit was designed to optimise lion welfare, being built triple the size of the minimum requirements, and it has been inspected and approved by the State Government with an A-Grade rating.

Central Coast Zoo Senior Veterinarian, Katie Hankins said the new facility is state of the art and was built to keep all the lions from being separated.

“The fate of these animals was a bit unknown, as there was no zoo facility in Australia that could have taken all six and kept them as a family unit, so we made the commitment to make a brand-new facility so they could stay together,” Hankins said.

The lions came to Central Coast Zoo following the COVID shutdown of Stardust Circus, an ethically minded circus that saw trainer Matthew Ezekial train the lions using positive reinforcement.

“Witnessing the bond Matthew has with these animals, and that these animals have with Matthew is truly extraordinary and incredible, he is part of their pride,” Hankins said.

Central Coast Zookeeping Team Leader, Caroline Shemwell said she is looking forward to opening up to the public again when lockdown restrictions lift.

“We are excited to offer an amazing retirement home at our Savannah Sanctuary exhibit at the new Central Coast Zoo.

“We’ve got six lions here, three males and three females.

“They’ve come from Stardust Circus and they are retired now, so we were lucky enough to be able to get them, and it’s quite a privilege to be able to have them.

“We’ve built this exhibit for them, and it’s pretty hard to have six lions together, so we were quite happy to take them and build them something for them that will last quite well.

“There were other places that could take a couple, maybe up to four I think was the most other places could take, but Stardust didn’t really want them to be separated, and we didn’t want them to be separated either, so we had the opportunity to build this specifically for them and we were lucky enough for them to pick us out of everybody else.

“We were quite excited.

“We’ve got the male, Zihare, and his sister and younger brother who is the boss, he’s in charge of the group, and he has a sister in here as well, Nairobi.

“We also have Hulk and his sister Akenda,” Shemwell said.

Shemwell said that there is lots of cleaning and feeding involved with looking after lions.

“You need to learn the behaviours of each of the animals, and their individual personalities, but also the generalised behaviours of the lions so that you can pick up on any weird little bits of politics that might be going on in a group like this, so it helps circumvent it where we can.

“They pretty much pick their own leaders, and who is going to be with who and we just work with that,” Shemwell said.

The lions will be viewable when the Zoo opens later this year.

“They’re settling in and they’re having a chance to do that without the public which is great for them, as it’s a completely different situation for them and what they’re used to.

“We’ll be getting them cleaned up and training them to be able to do encounters and experiences so people will be able to get a lot closer to them, and by the time we open, hopefully everything will be sorted out and we’ll be good to go with them.

“We have a few other animals coming in as well, we’ve got a serval, we’ve got some alligators, and the meerkats of course so there will be different experiences and encounters we’ll be able to do with them at some point.

“I’m very excited that the Central Coast has it’s own pride of lions.

“I grew up here on the Central Coast, so to be able to come back home and do what I love doing is really exciting for me, and really exciting for the Coast I think.

“Lots of kids and families will be able to come here, and it’s a lot easier for them than it is having to head to other places.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to see everyone when we open,” Shemwell said.

Shemwell has been a zookeeper for more than 30 years, with 13 years of experience with lions.

“I’ve done a bit of everything but lions and big cats are definitely my favourites,” Shemwell said.

Central Coast Zoo, which is part of the Central Coast Amazement and Fun Park will be opening to patrons later in the year.

When the zoo opens, patrons will be able to get up close and personal with the lions, including hand feeding them.

Harry Mulholland