Big, powerful, and inspiring respect and awe, Prince the lion helped get the fledgling San Diego Zoo on its feet. But he was a big softy when it came to his cubs!
  • 1920s
  • 1940s

We’re not “lion” when we say the San Diego Zoo began with a roar. When Zoo founder Dr. Harry Wegeforth heard a lion roaring from the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park, it gave him the idea to start the San Diego Zoo in 1916, and lions have been a vital part of the Zoo’s history ever since.

In 1923, the Zoo opened the first two open-air grotto exhibits in the US, one for bears and one for lions. Prince, the Zoo’s “mane” man at that time, reigned in the lion exhibit with his pride mates Cleo and Queen. He was a regal, handsome lion with a dark, full mane and impressed everyone who saw him. Despite his imposing presence, though, he had a soft spot: his cubs.

Prince fathered many during his lifetime, and he was always a good dad. In 1937, then director Belle Benchley wrote about him, “to date the loveliest family group we have in the zoo right now and one of the most remarkable that we have ever had is the African father lion and his three babies.” She described the first time he met the three little terrors, as he lay down in the sun near them as they explored the exhibit. “Bit by bit they approached the father. Nearer they crawled ready to spring backward at the first threatening move. Just as they reached the big tassel on his tail it was lifted slowly into the air and waved gently back and forth. The leader sprang at the tassel and missed but he returned to the charge and this time caught it between his little claws. The others rushed in to worry the victim. The father lifted one eyelid just a bit and turned his great head just far enough to see them out of one eye….Bolder and bolder they grew until they were climbing over him as though he were a log….”

Prince was patient with them, and all his cubs, to the point of even playing a gentle game of tug-of-war with them using his large chunks of meat, until the cubs realized the piece was too big for them and went in search of easier morsels. Belle even drove by one day and saw one of the cubs draped across Prince’s paws under his big chin. Prince was drowsy, his heavy head starting to fall, but then he would jerk it up again so as not to disturb the cub. Belle said she thought to herself, “You silly old fellow, her mother would not be so patient and would push her firmly away!”

Images of San Diego Zoo Centennial commemorative pins. ShopZoo: Your one-stop shop for Centennial commemoratives, gear, and more!