Lion keeper at Oaklawn Farm Zoo has unique bond with big cats
'Knowing their personalities is why I can do what I do'
Maria Weinberg says she is a dog lover. But cats — large cats — are her passion.
Weinberg looks after a pride of five lions at Oaklawn Farm Zoo and enters their enclosure several times every day.
"They are very friendly with me and they love to be groomed," said Weinberg, who has worked at the zoo for 14 years. "But there are times when they want to be left alone, which is normal and understandable."
Weinberg's day starts with cleaning the lion enclosure.
She enters and exits without hesitation, even though the animals could turn on her at any moment.
The five lions range in age from two to six and Weinberg has been with them since they were cubs.
"I would never go into an enclosure with a big cat that I didn't have a hand in raising," said Weinberg. "Knowing their personalities is why I can do what I do."
What Weinberg does with the lions is not much different than what someone might do with their house cat. She pets them regularly and the lions actually enjoy being brushed.
The three males are Hunter, Sterk and Obi. The two females, who are spayed, are Nee and Nyah. Because they are fed regularly they are heavier than wild lions living in Africa.
Between them they weigh approximately 1,000 kilograms.
Three-year-old Hunter, now considered a young adult, is the largest of the cats. He is still growing, weighing around 265 kilograms.
"He's a gentle giant, a very loving cat," said Weinberg. "He loves to get his kisses and smooches and loves to get his mane brushed. I'd say he's the kindest one we have here."
Weinberg has a rottweiler and two labs at her home in nearby Auburn.
Much like a dog, she can command some of the lions to sit by using treats.
She said it's rare for them to show aggression. If that happens, it's usually during their daily feeding.
"The lions can anticipate that we have no fear and we just go about doing what we are doing," said Gail Rogerson, the zoo's co-owner.
Rogerson worked closely with a previous pride of lions at the zoo.
"We can tell if a lion doesn't want to be bothered, then we don't bother it. Once they're fed you leave them alone with their meat. You follow the lion rules."
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