The Smithsonian Zoo has mourned the death of a 17-year-old African lion


Luke, the patriarch of the Smithsonian National Zoo’s pride of African lions, has died at the age of 17.

The big cat was euthanized on October 19, according to a zoo news release. He had health problems for several years.

“Luke was truly the ‘King’ of the Big Cat exhibit,” said Craig Saffoe, one of the zoo’s curators, in a statement. “Naba and Shera were kind to their mates, and a very patient and protective father to the 13 cubs he fathered.

“Luke has left a lasting legacy, not only in the cubs he contributed to the survival of his species, but also in the millions of visitors who were able to gain a deeper knowledge and appreciation of African lions because of his patriarchal pride.”

The lion “had intermittent discomfort and lameness in his right arm since 2016,” the statement said. The veterinary team performed a CT scan and discovered an injury to her spine, but decided against surgery due to the risk of complications. Instead, he received nonsurgical treatment for his spinal problems, including steroids, oral medications, deep tissue laser therapy, and acupuncture.

In early October, zookeepers noticed that Luke had lost weight during a routine weigh-in. During an examination on October 19, cystic masses were found throughout his liver, and the spinal disease had progressed, causing fusion of several vertebrae.

“Given these findings, Luke’s overall long-term quality of life was deemed poor, and the animal care team decided to humanely euthanize him,” the zoo explained in a statement.

Luke was born on a private game reserve in South Africa in 2005, the statement said. It was considered particularly valuable in the US because “its genes were not represented in US zoos” when it arrived in Washington, DC, in 2006.

Visitors can still see one of Luke’s members, Shera, with her offspring at the National Zoo.