FLORENCE — To the Howards, Leo and Una are more than just lions. They’re family — family that needs love and support.
Anne and Dan Howard have been the lead volunteer caretakers of the lions since 2002 when Dan, then the University of North Alabama’s vice president for Advancement, and a few other university officials brought them to Alabama from New Hampshire.
“They are the sweetest,” said Anne Howard. “There’s days I have to remind myself these are lions. These are the top of the food chain. But they’re loving.”
As the only live lion mascots living on a college campus in the United States, Leo III and Una have touched hundreds of thousands of hearts over the years.
At least 70,000 people visit UNA’s campus each year to see the lions in person, according to Kevin Haslam, the current vice president for University Advancement.
“I don’t think you can state the significance of Leo and Una, and I’m not trying to be dramatic,” he said. “When you go back to Leo I, actually … from the '70s to this day ... something that unites every single person that has walked this campus is a live lion. That’s pretty unique.”
According to Howard, it costs about $30,000 a year to care for the lions, from food to habitat maintenance. That doesn’t include any major repairs that may come up.
“We have people on campus who do not know they are supported completely by donations,” she said of the lions. “There’s a lot of things I would like to do that I can’t because you’ve got to put bread on the table first.”
Haslam said there have been discussions lately to come up with more ways to support Leo and Una.
While it's tradition to celebrate the lions' birthdays in April to mark the birthday of Leo I, officials decided to add a Giving Day on Leo and Una’s real birthday, Nov. 18.
But they wanted to implement something more permanent as well.
“As we continued to look at different options — things we can do — I had looked at some of the other live mascots around the country, and what I found is a whole bunch of them have their own website. I reached out to this team and I said, ‘Hey, how come Leo and Una don’t have their own website?’”
UNA created leoanduna.com in about a month, launching it Friday.
Not only did UNA want to provide a platform to tell the story of Leo and Una, who will turn 17 this month, but they also wanted to create a clear mechanism for the public to donate to their care.
“The habitat was built through donated funds,” Haslam said. “All their food and those kinds of things come through donated funds. It is important that we create the mechanism for people to be able to give in order to support them.”
The lions’ specialty food, which comes from Nebraska, costs about $4 a pound. In the winter, the lions eat as much as 17 combined pounds of food per day.
“There is no donation too small, and it’s for a worthy cause,” Howard said. “Quarters add up to dollars. Dollars add up to big dollars. If you’ve just got a quarter, that’s fine. It’s vital we get donations, absolutely vital.”
Veterinary care for the lions is donated by local veterinarians Drs. Randall Smith, Matt Connolly, Bill Connolly and Brandon Fisher.
Haslam said the Howards are largely responsible for the good life Leo and Una enjoy today.
“I say that Dan and Anne have given their lives to these lions,” he said. “Throughout, she has not taken a vacation. She has not left. She is there every day. They train the team of volunteers.”
Howard said the average life expectancy of a lion in captivity is 18 to 19 years, compared to about 10 to 15 in the wild.
“I’m pushing for 20s,” she added. “We’re doing everything we can think of to give them a long, happy, healthy life.”