Lions, other big cats return to Lincoln Park Zoo

Lions and other big cats are returning to the Lincoln Park Zoo after a nearly two-year hiatus, and lovers of the apex predators will be able to see them in the zoo’s newly renovated state-of-the-art habitat.

That habitat, named the Pepper Family Wildlife Center, will open its doors next month to the public and will feature a new pride of lions consisting of one male and three females. It will also have two red pandas, two Canada lynx and two snow leopards.

The male lion is named Jabari and came from Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa, and three sisters — Zari, Hasira and Cleo — came from Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, South Carolina.

“All of the new residents of Pepper Family Wildlife Center have arrived safely and are settling in well,” says Maureen Leahy, vice president of animal care and horticulture. “As a science-based institution committed to advancing animal welfare, this renovation focuses on animal choices. From thermal comfort zones to trees for climbing, and even special enrichment features, the new space provides so many choices for the lions.”

The home of the zoo’s lions underwent a $41 million renovation project in 2019 with the help of a $15 million gift from Roxelyn and Richard Pepper — whom the habitat is named after. The original lion house was constructed in 1912 and designated a Chicago Landmark in 2005.

The renovations made to the facility included updates to the exterior and interior of the building and a new habitat for the lions. One of those new features is an “expansive, savannah-style habitat” that has “climate-controlled areas with heated rock surfaces, hot and cool air and shade.”

The zoo said it had collected data over the past several years on lion behavior, space use and preference to help inform how it designed the new lion habitat. It spans the full northern side of the building with complex options for lions to climb, play and rest.

Guests will be able to view the wildlife from both the inside and outside of the habitat. The new “Lion Loop” inside the facility allows guest to view the exhibit from the center of the habitat. Visitors will also have the access to see the lions participating in their own health care through the facility’s “demonstration training wall.”

The Pepper Family Wildlife Center opens to the public on Oct. 14 with Lincoln Park Zoo members having special access Oct. 1-3 with varying times.