Approximately 70 people crowded around to watch Docha, a male African lion at the Santa Barbara Zoo, devour a mane course of beef and ice cream as he celebrated his first birthday Saturday morning.
The cake was made especially for Docha by Santa Barbara-based McConnell’s Ice Cream and featured a combination of cardboard, ice cream mix and carnivore chow – a meat mixture fed to zoo animals, McConnell’s Co-Owner Jimmie Young said. As part of Docha’s birthday celebration, the zoo also handed out free ice cream to zoo attendees.
During the birthday festivities, the spectators watched as Docha, who is part of the Cats of Africa exhibit, knocked over the cake’s cardboard platform and alternately licked the ice cream and bit the box, which was decorated to look like a tiered cake. Young said he was relieved that the 194-pound cub enjoyed his creation.
“Evidently it passed Docha’s test,” Young said. “But I’ll tell you, when I was making it, it was scary.”
Zoo staff threw Docha the party and gave him the meat-flavored ice cream as part of the Santa Barbara Zoo’s policy of enrichment – the practice of providing the animals with new experiences to stimulate them, Young said.
“The old-school ways of zoos are gone where they just put them in pens and it’s just a spectacle,” Young said. “Now they try to do things that are fun and healthy and exciting for the animals. They give them a lot of frozen things, things with scents on them, round things, square things, things that come apart.”
McConnell’s also creates specialty ice cream flavors for other local events, Young said, such as an avocado-flavored ice cream for the annual avocado festival. He said he worked with zoo nutritionists to create the meat-flavored ice cream cake, which is not currently available for purchase at either of the two McConnell’s stores in Santa Barbara.
“Just think mystery meat,” Young said. “It’s like crazy spam. … We mushed it all up with our hands, stirred it up and froze it in the shape of a cake.”
Wes Hardin, Docha’s lion keeper, said the cub was born at the zoo one year ago and spent his first three weeks in an incubator. He said zoo staff hand-fed the lion as a baby because his mother Gingerbread did not produce any milk.
Hardin said Docha is a unique cub because he was Gingerbread’s only cub and it is extremely rare for a lioness to give birth to only one cub at a time. Lions typically give birth to between three and six cubs at once.
“Very weird, very rare,” Hardin said, “I think it’s the equivalent of us having twins or triplets.”
Because Docha was alone in the incubator, Hardin said, the zoo staff gave him a Winnie the Pooh doll and a gibbon stuffed animal to keep him company. When Docha was eight weeks old, he was reintroduced to his mother, which can be a very difficult experience for the young lion. Hardin said Gingerbread laid down and let Docha come to her and, after approximately two weeks, the lions were acting affectionately with each other.
“He didn’t realize he was a lion,” Hardin said, “All he knew was our smell, our sight, our sound, so when he goes in with this 300 pound lion, it’s very overwhelming.”
Docha is still growing, Hardin said.
“Sometimes he’ll look like he’s got a big belly hanging over,” Hardin said. “Every week you come in and he looks different. He’s either longer or taller, [or his] stomach is bigger and by the next day it’ll just stretch right out.”
Hardin said Docha loves his enclosure at the zoo and utilizes every part of it. He especially loves to watch volleyball players on the beach and to chase children running back and forth at the window.
“He was hand-raised,” Hardin said. “He sees people a little differently from his parents, who were parent- reared. He sees us more as mates rather than food, like his parents would.”