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Getting an up-close look while the lion sleeps today

At the head of a surgical table built for a horse, an electric scraper whined along a 2-inch fang. A few feet down, a woman trimmed the creature’s claws with clippers that might have doubled as steel-cable cutters.

“It’s like Narnia,” said Paul, a developmentally disabled man in his 40s as he stood inches from a slumbering Brookfield Zoo lion undergoing a routine physical exam.

And then human hand met colossal lion paw, and Paul realized Zenda was nothing like the fictional beast from author C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

“Amazing!” Paul said, stroking Zenda’s sandy-brown fur.

Zenda, an African lion at Brookfield Zoo, was sedated for one of his routine examinations.  | James Foster/for the Sun-Times

Zenda, an African lion at Brookfield Zoo, was sedated for one of his routine examinations. | James Foster/for the Sun-Times

There was a lot of that at the zoo’s animal hospital on Thursday, as four residents from Misericordia Home on the Northwest Side got the chance to touch Zenda’s paws, his mane — even his sandpaper-rough tongue. Misericordia staff asked that residents be identified only by their first names.

“He’s very, very asleep — we’re going to be very safe,” said Dr. Michael Adkesson, the zoo’s vice president of clinical medicine, answering the unspoken fear on a number of minds.

Thursday’s event was part of an ongoing collaboration between the zoo and Misericordia, aimed at teaching folks with mental disabilities about animal care and conservation.

As men and women in scrubs and surgical gloves poked, rubbed and pricked the 450-pound carnivore, Zenda lay motionless, his huge pink tongue spilling out of his mouth. It took about one-tenth of an ounce of a sedative cocktail to render the lion as harmless as a kitten — for about ninety minutes.

The team moved efficiently, clipping nails, removing tartar from teeth, running an ultrasound wand over the lion’s vital organs. The table, which operates with a hydraulic lift, has also catered to an adult zebra and a polar bear, among others, Adkesson said.

Zenda, in the prime of life, gets this treatment every two years.

Craig, a resident of Misericordia, accompanied by Dr. Michael Adkesson, vice president of clinical medicine at Brookfield Zoo, touches Zenda's paw while he sleeps. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Craig, a resident of Misericordia, accompanied by Dr. Michael Adkesson, vice president of clinical medicine at Brookfield Zoo, touches Zenda’s paw while he sleeps. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Before she actually saw Zenda, Misericordia resident Lyn was lukewarm about the field trip.

“I’m not particularly fond of lions,” Lyn said. “I was supposed to go off to lunch with my mom — and then this happened.”

The sight of the hulking beast instantly changed all that.

“Wanna feel his tail?” Adkesson asked Lyn.

“Oh yeah!” she squealed.

Paul was left almost speechless by the experience — almost.

“We love you and God bless you,” he said, stroking Zenda’s flank.

He walked out of the hospital examination room to cheers from the Misericordia group.

“I did it!” Paul shouted.

Lyn (in red), accompanied by Julie O' Sullivan and members of the Brookfield Zoo veterinary staff, approaches Zenda, an African lion, during one of his routine examinations on Thursday. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Lyn (in red), accompanied by Julie O’ Sullivan and members of the Brookfield Zoo veterinary staff, approaches Zenda, an African lion, during one of his routine examinations on Thursday. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times