Under the spreading shade of a gum tree at the Mogo Zoo, just down from Batemans Bay, a furry cluster of lion cubs is at play: batting at a red ball hanging from the tree, swiping at each other's tails, worrying at their father's mane. They have handsome noses and compact ears, chunky feet and paintbrush tails, but what makes these lions extra special - apart from finding them here at all - is that they're white lions, pale, creamy-blond and very rare.
Lions are always impressive, but something about white ones feels extra special - whether this stems from the centuries of African lore that predicted their appearance as heavenly or enlightened messengers (they were first sighted in 1928 in South Africa's Timbavati, named for "the place where starlions came down from the heavens"), or from childhood memories of the Japanese anime Kimba ("Who's the king of animals in Africa? Kimba the white lion is his name!"). The animals were declared extinct in the wild by the mid-1990s. Successful captive breeding programs were instituted - some, it was said, to supply a safari market that considered white lions both more exotic to hunt and easier to spot - and by 2007, at least one pride had been successfully reintroduced into the wild.
Now, Mogo Zoo has an even dozen, comprising three adults who came from Johannesburg in 2004 and their three litters: the officially named Purr and Joe (born in 2006 and supported, yes, by a certain French car manufacturer); the siblings nicknamed Mafuta and Numbi (born later that year); and the surprisingly large pounce of five brothers born last winter. "We had to hand-raise Mafuta and Numbi," says the zoo's owner, Sally Padey, "so we thought we'd let this mum have one more litter, just to have her mothering time."
On the sunny grass, the leaping and pouncing quietens down, the cubs draped here and there, over each other, over their parents. It's easy to imagine a great big leonine purr under the distinctive sound of breeze through gum leaves. "Oh no," says Padey, "I'm afraid not. Lions don't purr." Nevertheless, lion cubs are, she admits, "pretty irresistible". When news of the five cubs' birth went around the world (‘the Gangsters', the zoo called them, "although someone said we should've called them ‘the Sopranos'"), Padey couldn't believe the response. "I tell you what, there must have been no murders, nothing seriously bad going on - no bombings, no killings."
The history of private zoos stretches back at least as far as Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt, in 1500 BC, and the Chinese emperor Wen Wang, whose 600-hectare Garden of Intelligence housed an impressive menagerie around 1000 BC. Bishops and popes assembled animals, as did the wealthy and royalty: in 1251, Henry III showed London its first elephant and a polar bear, while the centrepiece of Charles I's private zoo, 400 years later, was a large python. An estimated 150 private zoos currently operate in Australia.
"It was just something we felt really compelled to do," says Padey of the decision to start Mogo in the late 1980s. "Everyone wanted us to do natives but I said, ‘Everyone's doing natives; we want endangered exotics.' Because if animals are going to be behind wire, and if people are going to pay to look at them, they have to benefit from being there. Our first animals were three African servals. Then we got seven crab-eating macaque monkeys. Then two cougars ..." By the end of 2007, she was the zoo's sole owner and director, with 31 staff and over 200 animals, including zebras, chimpanzees, tigers, red pandas, otters and a jaguar. "The first giraffe came four years ago," she says, "and we're still the only private zoo in Australia to have golden lion tamarins. You have to be approved by Brazil to host them."
A whooping sound starts up. "That's the white-handed gibbons," says Padey calmly. "If you'd been here earlier, the siamangs were calling for half an hour - and that is a noise. Nothing rivals it, except when the lions start roaring at night. The whole house shudders, and we've only got five of them roaring at the moment ... We had a street party the other night, and our neighbours were all saying, ‘We just love it.' ‘Sometimes,' they said, ‘those chimps get a bit noisy' - well, I wouldn't call it noisy; it's shocking."
Padey's home is among her animals and their noises: she's one of a rare breed of owners who might find themselves in a nightie, shorts and Ugg boots dealing with a Cape Dog fight at 11 on a winter's night. "Animals aren't nine to five, five days a week," she says. "Being a privately funded zoo, and starting with $4000 and an old house ... we were making dinners for ourselves out of nothing. I used to buy exactly what food was needed, down to the last grape. My daughter would say, ‘Please can I have a grape, Mum?' And I'd have to say no. She knew she wasn't allowed to touch the grapes, because they were for the little monkeys." Her daughter wasn't a small-enough monkey? Padey laughs. "Well, yes," she says, adding, "she does work with us now."
From these small beginnings, Mogo now participates in globally co-ordinated mating schemes. As a member of the International Species Information System, which keeps track of species' genetic pools, the zoo has managed some particularly tricky procreations, including snow leopards, golden lion tamarins, pygmy marmosets and cotton-top tamarins. (The white cubs, their parents purchased privately, are not part of an international breeding program.) "We've got a pair of black-and-white-ruffed lemurs that we've been trying to breed," says Padey. "The female was post-breeding, but they really wanted to get her genetics, so they said, ‘Can you try?' This is the second year - you only get three matings a year - and she did everything right. But no; so we're going to give up on that. Still, our blue-tongue lizard is giving birth this morning - she'd had eight 15 minutes ago; she's probably had another eight by now."
Coming up to their lunchtime, the five cubs are gambolling again, their brothers Mafuta and Numbi watching from their enclosure further up the hill. It's quite common for animals to be rejected, especially by first-time mothers, the zoo's general manager, Jonathan Minor, explains - although it means that these hand-raised cubs have to be kept apart from the rest of the pride. But most male cubs have to leave their pride sooner or later, or challenge their father, the dominant male, for supremacy. "Yes, it's brutal," says Minor, "but once they're past a certain age, these cubs will probably have to be moved to a new exhibit as well. At least we can keep the five of them together."
Beyond the gum tree, one of the cubs leaps onto a suspended tyre and swings, precariously balanced, front paws around the rope, tail counterpoised against the movement. Another ambles over, pads a paw at its brother, takes a swing at a 25-litre demijohn, misses completely and flops down - as cats do - as if it had never meant to hit it in the first place. And its father yawns, a huge open lion-mouth that hints at a roar.
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