That Time I Almost Got Killed By A Lion

Happy 2012, people! So, it's not a new year if there aren't some new YouTube videos floating around the interwebs. Am I right?

One of them caught my eye (and about 3 million other eyes, too, apparently). It's of a little girl at a zoo in New Zealand. She's standing about six inches from the maw of a huge male lion, separated only by a (hopefully thick) pane of plexiglass. The lion starts batting at the glass, trying to get at the girl. Dinner--so close, yet so far away.

Seeing that video reminded me of my own zoo lion adventure a few years ago. I was in Birmingham, Alabama, visiting my grandparents. Almost by tradition, we visit the zoo every time we're in town. Even as twenty-somethings, my grandmother, Muv, usually takes us, because she's awesome (and because we all love getting spend some time with her).

So, we went together. We had a lovely time meandering about. Muv showed me some new additions they had installed, and it was generally just a pleasant afternoon. The sun was out, the day was warm. What could go wrong?

We walked up to the big cat area (my favorite, obviously!)

The lions at the Birmingham Zoo are in a big outdoor pen behind some glass, next to the "Big Cat House." They're usually really boring, sleeping all the time and rarely doing anything. It looked to be another one of those days. They were all just lazing about.

The big male, though, did lift his head up and yawn. It was just another day for him, reigning over his little quarter-acre plot.

However, as he finished his yawn, he looked over at us. He must see hundreds of humans every day, but for whatever reason, we interested him. He glared at me, and I glared right back.

Then I had the worst possible reaction. My cats enjoy playing a little bit of cat-and-mouse. I move my hand around a bit or wiggle a laser pointer, and they go all bonkers over it. Wouldn't a lion, which is just a big kitty, want to do the same thing?

Keeping eye contact, I started dipping and dodging, running back and forth along the little fence in front of the glass.

Sure enough, the lion kept watching me. He quietly got up and started walking toward me.

That's when I realized that I was actually being hunted by a lion. He had crouched into the medium-tall grass a few dozen yards away and was inching a little closer each moment.

Once again, I made clear why I would die if I had to survive in the wild. While a normal human/prey reaction would be to stop taunting a 500 lb. cat and run, I just doubled down on my efforts. Muv was starting to get a little nervous.

"Josh," she said, "I don't know if you should keep doing that. I think he's actually stalking you."

A moment after she said that, the lion charged. I was amazed at how quickly it ran and, as it approached, how big it really was. It lunged at the glass, and we both jumped back.

The lion hit the glass--BAM!--at full speed, and the stuff shook violently. We weren't close enough to the door of the Big Cat House to escape if it broke, and I quickly figured that I'd push Muv out of the way so the lion could eat me. I mean, it wanted to eat me anyway, so I don't think my potential gallantry would've changed much, but whatever.

The glass did hold (whew!), but the lion still stood there, on its hind legs, at least seven feet tall, growling and batting at the glass. It never once stopped staring at me, which was kind of frightening. I've never had anything want so desperately for me to be dead.

We watched it for a bit before heading into the Big Cat House. The lion was not a happy camper, and a crowd was starting to develop. I figured the thing would probably calm itself down if I were no longer part of the excitement.

I don't think we got any pictures of the event (did you, Muv?). It was terrifying. And awesome. Lions are so cool.

Assuming the lion is still the same as it was a few years ago, his name is Kwanzaa (deadliest holiday ever, apparently), and he just became a dad. Good for him. Here's a video of him being trained. Around the :40 mark, he goes up on his hind legs. Notice how huge he is and how much he could make you dead if he wasn't barricaded by something. Eek.