By Stephanie Butzer
The Conservators’ Center in Burlington said goodbye to Sadie, one of its beloved lionesses, Jan. 6 after her long fight with a cancerous tumor on her chin. She had to leave her pridemates and caretakers behind, but the impact this 450-pound cat made will not disappear anytime soon.
Sadie came to the Conservators’ Center, a nonprofit organization which combines education and living exotic animals, under bad circumstances.
In 2004, the two co-founders of the Center, Mindy Stinner and Douglas Evans, received a phone call from a government agency explaining a large confiscation at a neglectful facility in Ohio.
The owner of the facility had been in the business for 30 years but it had recently gone downhill – an animal killed one of his children and another mauled his grandchild. The animals were not given proper food or clean water and were housed in undersized cages with species they were not compatible with.
The government agency was looking for homes for the animals before the confiscation occurred so they could be rescued. With more than 900 violations of the Animal Welfare Act, it was difficult for Stinner and Evans to say no.
“It sounds like a huge number of violations, and it is,” Evans said. “The Federal Agency responsible for monitoring those things has an incredibly tough job.”
They negotiated to accept one enclosure-worth of big cats. If the Conservators’ Center could stabilize the remaining animals, another facility offered to take them after they had finished building habitats on their land. They even offered to pay for the cages at the Center. Stinner and Evans agreed to take in all of the animals – 14 lions and tigers, including Sadie.
“We felt like we were going to be floundering around a little bit,” Stinner said.
A few days later, the other facility closed and the Center found itself with more cats than they had signed up for. But because the animals would probably have been euthanized if sent elsewhere, Stinner and Douglas agreed to revamp their business plan and take into account the new lion and tiger numbers.
“However much it set us back … it cost us enormous work and money and stress,” Evans said. “All of them that came here have come back from the brink of disaster.”
Sadie arrived with three other members of her pride: Mufasa, Ugmo and Kiara. The Center was comfortable taking in the tigers from the confiscation because they had experience with them, but the Center knew little beyond practical care for the lions. Keepers were unfamiliar with lions’ personalities and emotional needs.
“It takes years to learn how to interact with these animals safely,” Evans said. “It takes years to know how to construct an enclosure or even a den that is adequate for the animal.”
The big cats were transported from Ohio to North Carolina in small transport cages in a large enclosed truck. The males were especially upset about the close quarters, Stinner said.
When the truck arrived at the Center, Sadie was the first to jump out of her cage and into her new home: a 60-foot long enclosure with a den box, trees – which the lions had never seen before – and plenty of room to play. It was three times larger than any cage Sadie had ever known, even though the Center still considered it small for four big cats. While they were lucky enough to have some sponsors cover the cost to build a larger enclosure, Sadie did not seem disappointed with the original cage.
“She bounced off the walls,” Stinner said. “She was so excited she ran around in the grass and rolled and sniffed everything and smelled the trees.”
Ugmo, an older lioness, followed Sadie out of the truck. The Center automatically noticed the friendship between the lions. They speculated Ugmo may have been her older sister.
Toward the end of the day, Evans visited the lions to see how they had calmed down and adjusted to the new environment.
“Sadie came right up to Doug and looked at him,” Stinner said. “She put her chin up on the fence and rubbed her cheek a little bit and closed her eyes. So, he scratched under her chin a little bit.”
The lion sighed heavily.
“That was it,” Stinner said. “Sadie wanted chin rubs from everybody she could get one from after that. Of course, that’s right next to teeth. So you have to be very careful when you’re doing that.”
Most of the other lions were just as affectionate. They had been hand-raised by people and were used to human interaction. The Center quickly learned Sadie was an extremely expressive animal.
“The biggest threat we had with her was that when she would come to the fence she would just fling her whole body against it with all of her weight which meant if you weren’t really paying attention and you had your hands anywhere near the mesh, she could have easily crushed fingers – just being affectionate,” Stinner said.
But the rescue didn’t come without its fair share of hardships.
A lion named Tabitha came into the Center with an untreated and aggressive type of terminal cancer. She had to be put her down almost immediately.
“That’s the sad part of that whole rescue,” Evans said. “We brought this cat in and we had her evaluated even though we both knew. Within the week, we had to have her euthanized.”
Sadie gives birth
Within the big cats’ first few weeks the Conservators’ Center, the vets discovered four of them had either come to the Center pregnant or became pregnant soon after arrival. Sadie was one of them.
Because of this unforeseen circumstance, the Center went from owning three big cats to more than 30 in just four months. Sadie’s birthing is a particularly sentimental memory for Evans.
“It was quite, quite exciting, which is something we don’t look forward to here,” Evans said.
Oct. 18, 2004 turned out to be a very exciting day for them.
Sadie’s pride’s enclosure was built so portions could be sectioned off in case keepers needed to isolate an animal for occasions like medical checkups or births.
Sadie delivered her cubs in a mud puddle behind the den box on a rainy, cold day. Stinner and Evans were present, as were other keepers and volunteers. The other lions were moved into a separate part of the enclosure. Meanwhile, four white newborn cubs struggled in the mud. Stinner and Evans monitored the situation, hoping Sadie would know what to do.
Luckily, the babies nursed from Sadie for a short time.
“Our policy is to leave them on the mom if we can for at least a couple of weeks to get the colostrum from the mother’s milk, which we can’t really reproduce yet,” Evans said.
But Sadie had never raised cubs before and Evans said she stared at him and the keepers as if asking for help. The keepers put a tarp over that specific part of the enclosure to help decrease the cold rainfall on the delicate babies.
When it was clear the cubs would die without human involvement, Stinner cut a small hole in the fence and was able to get two cubs, later named Adeena and Ra, out of the enclosure. The remaining babies had wiggled under the den box and out of Stinner’s reach.
There was only one way to rescue the other cubs. Evans went into the enclosure with Sadie and started looking for the cubs.
“As big as lions look when you’re outside the cage, they grow exponentially when you go in the cage with them,” Evans said.
Stinner and the other volunteers started feeding Sadie chicken quarters, one of her favorite treats, through the fence to keep her distracted and incurious about Evans. Regardless of the diversion, Sadie alternated between eating what Stinner offered to her and going into the den box and stomping, as if saying the cubs were under that spot, Evans said.
Finally, Evans found one of the cubs, which they would later name Thomas. He carefully showed him to Sadie, who gave the cub a lick and turned away, before passing Thomas to Stinner.
After two hours, Sadie had eaten 70 pounds of chicken quarters, venison and hamburger meat and there was no sign of the fourth cub.
“I was ready to call it, to say, ‘this is over now,’” Evans said. “But I just couldn’t. So I laid back down.”
The other lions, who were in the portion of the enclosure unprotected from the rainy weather, began complaining.
“There is nothing more cranky than a male lion whose mane is plastered to his head from rain,” Stinner said.
Evans had both arms under the den box. This put him in an extremely vulnerable position.
“I was at the corner of the den box and Sadie was inside and pawing,” Evans said. “Then I don’t hear the pawing anymore. The hair on the back of my neck goes up. I look up and there is Sadie, breathing on the back of my neck. Her mouth is open and she is looking where I am looking and looking at me. From that perspective, her teeth were three, four feet long.”
Sadie went back to pawing in the den box and Evans wiggled further under the den box. Then he saw what he had been looking for.
“Little white ears come up and then a face and the little eyes that are still closed,” Evans said of Willow, the final cub. “I was able to reach and pull her and get her out.”
Evans showed Willow to Sadie. The lioness snorted at her cub and, exhausted from consuming an excess of food, laid down in the den box. Once Evans was out of the enclosure, the other lions were let back in, and with huffs and puffs, disappeared in the den box.
A lioness’ game
There are many memories of Sadie but there was one specific habit both Evans and Janine Tokarczyk, the director of animal care, fondly remember.
The first time Sadie played her “game” with Evans, he jumped in fright, which had not happened in a very time long, he said.
Evans had put food in the pride’s enclosure when Sadie jumped up from behind the den box and landed heavily on top it.
“She was an enormous lioness and she thought that was the funniest thing in the world,” Evans said. “Sometimes she was so excited about having her little ritual done that she wouldn’t even care about the food for five minutes.”
From then on, once Sadie saw food coming, she ran behind the den box and jumped on top when a caretaker was nearby. Evans said she would not only leap onto the top of the box, but she would bounce and twirl on all four feet.
“The funny thing is it wasn’t any aggressiveness,” said Tokarczyk. “It was literally like a kid going, ‘oh, you found me.’”
Discovering Sadie’s disease
Ugmo and Sadie had always been close, but in August 2012, the staff noticed Ugmo was spending more time grooming Sadie than ever before. After looking closely through the fence, they noticed a small black dot under Sadie’s chin, right in the center of her jaw. Vets said it might be an abscising tooth. The staff also made speculations about if something was lodged in that area, since Sadie liked to rub her chin on everything to scent-mark.
“There were a number of things it could have been, however it was the worst it could possibly be,” Evans said.
The Center’ staff kept an eye on the spot. A dental procedure for a big cat was a large and dangerous ordeal for both parties. However, after some time, they decided to call in a vet, who did not like the look of the bump. They decided to sedate her through hand injection through the fence to take a closer look.
The keepers of the Conservators’ Center try to have a hands-on relationship with the animals so they can safely tend to them from the outside of the enclosure.
“Our folks are able to have the relationship with the animals that allows them to notice things, that allows them to get hands-on when they have to and do it safely,” said Mandy Matson, communications director. “That’s the value.”
Sadie fell asleep very quickly after the injection, which was not a good signal and indicated a possible problem, Stinner said.
Sadie’s Lifetime Adopter, Kate DeBruin, was able to stand outside the enclosure while the vet worked on Sadie. DeBruin decided to “adopt” Sadie to become more involved and form a personal connection with the lioness.
“You come and visit the animal and they get to know you,” DeBruin said about her role’s function. “They recognize when you’re there and they get something out of it – their person has come to see them.”
DeBruin “adopted” Sadie in February 2011, long before she was diagnosed with cancer. While Sadie was sedated, the keepers allowed DeBruin to pet her for a few seconds.
After an inspection, the vet said the spot was a mass and wanted to remove it. The lump was sent to a lab where researchers confirmed it was cancerous and had already become a systemic issue.
Sadie had limited time.
The mass came back quickly and aggressively. However, the spot was not painful for the lioness. While Sadie underwent different treatments and medicines, she remained her happy-go-lucky self.
“You would never have thought that the situation she used to be in she ever had experienced,” Tokarczyk said. “I honestly think she just wanted to make everyone happy.”
Near the end of her life, the vets advised putting a powder on Sadie’s tumor to stop the bleeding and oozing. The caretakers called this “Sadie’s makeup” because they applied it with a brush. The lioness would even lift her chin and help direct the keepers to where the medication should be administered.
“When they really know you and trust you and love you, they will show you what’s wrong,” Stinner said. “But they have to really feel good about you.”
When Sadie’s vets said she needed stitches under her chin and the keepers would have to remove them in a few days, Tokarczyk laughed.
“If you had told me, for most of the animals, ‘go take stitches out of their chins,’ I would be like, ‘ha, yeah, good luck on that one,’” she said.
But Sadie reacted the same as when her keepers applied her makeup – she stretched her chin against the cage walls and showed the people where the stitches were.
While the keepers and other staff provided the best care they could for Sadie, Ugmo did her part as well.
“What was very touching to us was watching Ugmo tend to Sadie until the end of her life,” said Matson. “She would not leave her side. It was really, really sweet.”
Saying final goodbyes
Sadie fought for a long time, Stinner said. She stayed alive and happy a lot longer after her diagnosis than the Center’s staff expected.
“She was behaving normally,” DeBruin said. “She was eating. She was her normal everyday happy self. She really seemed absolutely fine until the first of the year.”
A few days after New Year’s Day, Sadie had trouble getting up and eating. It was clear she was starting to become uncomfortable.
“We just made sure she had really good bedding and we gave her that evening to spend time with Ugmo and the two of them cuddled,” Stinner said.
The next morning, the vet came out. Many people who cared for Sadie, including DeBruin, also came to the Center.
“She’s a good girl and a lot of folks helped us make sure she had a good end,” Stinner said. “I really appreciate that.”
Evans and Stinner sedated Sadie themselves before allowing the vet, keepers and others who had spent a lot of time with her into the enclosure.
Throughout the whole ordeal, Sadie was calm. Ugmo, who was sectioned off with the other lions, was also calmly watching. The keepers allowed DeBruin to pet Sadie goodbye. As soon as the vet gave Sadie the first injection, Ugmo laid down.
After Sadie had passed, the staff members removed her from the enclosure and brought her body along the other lion cages so they could see she was gone.
“She [Ugmo] went over and stretched out in the straw that she and Sadie had shared and just went, thunk, and took a nap and didn’t wake up for almost 24 hours,” Stinner said. “She just crashed. She had been care-giving for so long.”
Holding memories close
The Conservators’ Center remembers Sadie as a lion who was willing to do anything for the people she interacted with. There are countless happy memories they all hold close.
“She was always fun, all the way up to the end, when she was very sick,” Evans said. “She would make the effort to come over and visit. I miss her terribly. The pride is not the same without her.”
DeBruin compared loosing Sadie to loosing somebody’s first love or first house-pet.
“She was my first lion so I think she will always have a special place in my heart,” she said. “She’s going to have an extra special spot there.”
Tokarczyk, who is constantly on the grounds, said it was weird to not see Sadie bounce on top of the den box. If she wasn’t a lion, she would be a lapdog, Tokarczyk said.
Sadie was often used to educate visitors about lions because she was good-natured. She was also an educator for the staff because she was willing to try new things with those she trusted. She helped teach her people how to train her.
“I knew she would teach them the right way to do things and she had no ill-intention towards anyone,” Tokarczyk said. “She left a huge hole here. The animals and the people all miss her.”
Sadie was a senior female, so she would often start a call around the Center’s grounds, called an “oof.” Other lions and animals would answer until the air was booming with commotion and after a few rounds, the Center quieted back down. There is still a large void down in the part of facility where Sadie lived with her pridemates, Stinner said. The other lionesses in Sadie’s pride have not stepped up yet.
Sadie’s four babies, who are now eight years old, remain at the Center. They were hand-raised by the keepers, but Sadie was able to watch them and her grandchildren grow up. She was constantly surrounded by her family and friends.
“[The keepers] want to make sure the animal is still having a good quality of life,” DeBruin said. “And she was.”
Sadie’s life improved dramatically when she came to North Carolina and she helped fulfill the Center’s goal: to change people’s perceptions about the natural world, its ecosystems and to respect Earth’s many diverse organisms.
Her life was full and happy, Stinner said. Her death was expected, but it was also peaceful.
“She absolutely had the most wonderful kind of ending,” Evans said. “It’s the kind of thing people hope for, that all of their family and all of their friends come to see them. She passed gently. She was ready.”