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The cats are back! Lincoln Park Zoo welcomes back lions to new wildlife center

With a new $41 million wildlife center, the zoo is now home to a new pride of African lions, as well as two red pandas, two Canada lynx and a pair of snow leopards.

A female lion looks at the crowd at the ribbon cutting ceremony of the Pepper Family Wildlife Center at Lincoln Park Zoo, Thursday morning, Oct. 14, 2021. Mark Capapas/Sun-Times.
A female lion gets an up-close look at the crowd Thursday at the new Pepper Family Wildlife Center at Lincoln Park Zoo.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

Let them roar.

The Lincoln Park Zoo is welcoming four new lions to a new $41 million wildlife center, and it’s the first time African lions are back in the zoo since exhibit construction began in 2019.

The lions hail from zoos across the country, and on Thursday, they frolicked in their new exhibit, which features temperature-regulated rock formations and sustainably harvested, climbable trees.

A male lion inside the Pepper Family Wildlife Center at Lincoln Park Zoo, Thursday morning,
Jabari, the lone male of the zoo’s four African lions, rests upon a rock. The rocks, which are temperature regulated, were designed based on photographs from the wild habitats of Tanzania.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

“I’m glad they’re on that side of the glass,” said Roxelyn Pepper, who, along with her late husband Richard, provided $15 million for the exhibit and wildlife center.

“They’re pretty cute, and they act here exactly how they act as they do [in the wild].”

The 18,000-square-foot enclosure is the final piece in a $135 million capital campaign begun almost a decade ago. It’s also the new home for male lion Jabari, head of the pride, and females Zari, Cleo and Hasira, all of whom are half-sisters.

The big cats, each 3 years old, were met with oohs and aahs from Thursday’s crowd. The lions sprinted around the enclosure, jumping on each other and at one point coming right up to the glass, to the amazement of the zoo’s young visitors.

A lioness gets close to Caleb Shirrell at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Pepper Family Wildlife Center on Thursday. It’s been two years since the zoo last boasted a pride of African lions. Caleb Shirrell looks at the lions at the ribbon cutting ceremony of the Pepper Family Wildlife Center at Lincoln Park Zoo, Thursday morning, Oct. 14, 2021.
A lioness gets close to Caleb Shirrell at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Pepper Family Wildlife Center on Thursday.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

And lions actually had a say in the enclosure’s design, as it was modeled using a special app, ZooMonitor, which surveilled the behavior of lions in previous exhibits. The information led designers to add more vertical spaces for lions to perch upon and shaded areas where they can cool down.

The app is the brainchild of the zoo’s soon-to-be CEO and President Megan Ross, who will in January become the first woman to lead the zoo in its 153-year history.

“We’re so proud to bring all of Chicago here to Lincoln Park Zoo where they can better understand lions, see them up close, feel that connection to nature,” Ross said.

“We know that being connected to nature after these last couple of years with the pandemic really gives you hope. It makes your stress levels go down and we’re so happy to be that oasis.”

A female lion inside the Pepper Family Wildlife Center at Lincoln Park Zoo, Thursday morning, Oct. 14, 2021. Mark Capapas/Sun-Times.
The enclosure includes climbable, sustainably harvested trees and lots of sticks for the lions to chew and play with.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

In addition to housing the pride of lions, the Pepper Family Wildlife Center houses red pandas, two Canada lynx and a pair of snow leopards. The building, an official Chicago landmark, underwent multimillion-dollar renovations while maintaining its well-known facade.

Martina Hone, Chicago’s chief engagement officer, called the exhibit a “crown jewel for the city.”

“It’s a chance to see the world through the animals, and to love the animals,” she said.

Spectators watch the ribbon cutting ceremony of Pepper Family Wildlife Center at Lincoln Park Zoo, Thursday morning, Oct. 14, 2021. Mark Capapas/Sun-Times.
The ribbon-cutting for the Pepper Family Wildlife Center on Thursday was the final piece in a $135 million capital campaign that started in 2012.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

Hone also touted the zoo’s inclusivity efforts and free admission, which she said are instrumental to ensuring that Chicagoans from all parts of the city can appreciate the lions.

“This is an escape and a place to learn and love and grow,” she said. “I want every child in the city to be able to see it — because they can.”