FLORENCE — The University of North Alabama has issued a response to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) organization, saying Leo III, the school's live African lion mascot, will remain on campus.

The lion's female sibling, Una, died June 2 leaving Leo alone in the campus habitat.

The siblings had lived together all their lives (17 years) in the fully equipped habitat, and up until Una's diagnosis of malignant carcinoma have thrived, according to veterinarians who've cared for them.

A letter to the university from Brittany Peet, PETA's deputy general council for captive animal law enforcement, urged UNA to remove Leo III from his campus habitat and place him in a sanctuary to him to "spend the rest of his days in a vast habitat with others of his kind rather than as a living toy."

The letter went on to state that keeping a highly social lion in a solitary confinement is cruel, and called for the university to end its live-animal mascot program and retire Leo III.

The university's response to PETA's request stated: "While we mourn her (Una's) loss, Leo III is still very much a part of campus, and his care is still being provided by volunteers Anne and Dan Howard. He will continue to be the sole inhabitant of the George H. Carroll Lion Habitat for the remainder of his life."

Anne and Dan Howard began caring for Leo III and Una in their home when the animals were bottle-fed newborns up until the cubs were old enough to live on their own in the habitat. The Howards have been a constant presence in the lions' lives. 

Leo currently has no ailments, despite being near the end of his life expectancy of 18 to 20 years.

His veterinarians, Dr. Matt Connolly and Dr. Brandon Fisher, said Leo and Una have been afforded every opportunity to thrive in an environment that was conducive to a long, enjoyable life.

Connolly said that with Una being gone from the habitat, and having essentially represented Leo's pride, Leo will indeed experience grief for a period of time. 

"Having his volunteers, particularly the Howards, continuing to be a constant presence is important for Leo now. That familiarity is paramount for him to get through this period of grief and continue to thrive," Connolly said. "I do believe he will rebound."

As for Leo's habitat, Connolly said it's large, offers the amenities the lions needed, and consistently earns a perfect score of 100 with its inspections.

Peet did not state in her letter what, if any, further action PETA would take in the matter.

Likewise, university officials have not stated their intentions regarding replacing Leo III after he dies.

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