FLORENCE — A veterinarian who has cared for the University of North Alabama's African lion mascots said the death this week of Una will take some time for her 17-year-old sibling to adjust to.
Dr. Matt Connolly and Dr. Brandon Fisher have cared for the pair since they were cubs. Connolly said that despite the typical large cat instinct for survival, Leo will likely experience some depression and lethargy for the next several days.
"We anticipate his appetite to decrease, and he'll continue looking for her the next several days, but they've shared their habitat their whole lives so that's to be expected," Connolly said. "He's in mourning and he was showing some of that on Tuesday."
Connolly said he was relieved to hear from the lions' main volunteer caregivers, Anne and Dan Howard, that Leo ate supper on Tuesday evening and a good breakfast Wednesday morning.
Like humans, Connolly said the lion will eventually move on from the loss, but he also knows from the history of the school's past lions that "they have a good memory and always remember their caregivers."
Leo III and Una replaced Leo II, who died in March 2000.
Connolly said in his experiences in working with the lions, "they always knew us, and Leo definitely won't forget Una."
"His attitude and daily existence will get better," Connolly said. "We put a lot of human emotions on them, but they're animals and in the wild they lose their partners and carry on. Leo will, too."
Part of the recovery process for Leo, who is in good health, is to have volunteers, particularly the Howards, spend extra time with him to have familiar faces around.
"He'll also get some new toys and the distractions will help take his mind off the loss," Connolly said.
Una was believed to have had malignant carcinoma, but a detailed pathology report is expected in the next two weeks from Mississippi State University.
As for Leo, his habitat on the UNA campus is clean and he never lacks for attention between the daily public visitations and an attentive crew of caregivers.
Connolly said there's no reason to believe that the sibling lion's cancer was genetic. So far, Leo, whose life expectancy is in the 18 to 20 year range, takes only a joint supplement to help prevent arthritis.
"We worry about kidney disease with cats, but there's no indication of any such problem with Leo," he said.
Connolly said the last few days of Una's life, Leo seemed to know she wasn't well and never left her side.
Kevin Haslam, vice president for University Advancement, said the Howards will continue in their role as Leo's caregivers, as they've been with the lion since Una's passing.
The familiarity and close proximity of his caregivers is the best thing for Leo now, Connolly said. "He's basically without a pride now."