BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue and a central figure in the first season of Netflix’s “Tiger King” is weighing in on the death of a lioness at the Birmingham Zoo.
Akili, a 17-year-old African lioness, was killed Monday afternoon when zoo staff introduced her to Josh, a male lion.
“The staff is devastated at this unexpected loss of a long-time favorite animal and member of the Zoo family,” the Birmingham Zoo said in a statement.
Baskin, a longtime critic of housing “big cats” in zoos, told CBS 42 that until zoo philosophies and practices change, incidents like the one at the Birmingham Zoo are difficult, if not impossible, to prevent.
“Breeding big cats for life in prison is not conservation,” Baskin said. “Until we end that barbaric practice, true conservation won’t happen. Why would society do the hard work of saving habitat when they can easily see a cat in a cage and believe the propaganda that says they are preserving nature?”
Baskin noted that, of course, lion deaths occur in the wild. Even then, she explained, it’s difficult to control outcomes. Trying to do so in a zoo, she said, is akin to trying to “play God.”
“In the wild, male lions take over prides by fatal force; killing males and cubs in order to do so,” Baskin said. “Females may fight to the death trying to prevent it. Any time man tries to play God it never ends well.”
Hollie Colahan, deputy director of the Birmingham Zoo and coordinator of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Lion SSP said that animal introductions are inherently risky.
“…Wild animals can be unpredictable and we cannot control their interactions,” Colahan said. “Unfortunately, Akili sustained serious injuries within the first few minutes of the meeting and despite immediate intervention by the Animal Care and Animal Health teams, she succumbed to her injuries and died Monday afternoon.”
This isn’t the first time a lioness has been killed during introductions at a zoo. In 2001, a lioness named Binti Mafuta was killed by a lion named Cliff at the Boston Zoo, according to news accounts from the time. Staff used pepper spray, fire extinguishers and water hoses in an effort to stop Cliff’s attack. Their efforts were unsuccessful.
Akili, Birmingham’s late lioness, was born in captivity at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2005, zoo officials said. Akili was brought to Birmingham in 2007 to live with African lion Kwanza. In 2011, they had five cubs.
“When Kwanza died in 2021 we worked with the Lion Species Survival Plan (SSP) to identify a new male companion for Akili,” zoo officials said in a statement. “Josh arrived in April and the slow, careful process of introductions began.”
On Monday, though, that careful process came to a tragic end.
Carole Baskin said that she hopes that the public begins to more deeply consider how we treat animals, both wild and captive.
“We have to be smarter and more compassionate,” she said. “We have to stop teaching our children that it’s okay to deprive others of their homes and freedom if it serves our desires.”