Mascots inspire school spirit

Listen closely and you might hear a lion’s roar in the early morning or late afternoon.

No, you are not on the savanna or in a jungle. You are at the University of North Alabama. For the past 41 years, the campus has been the only college campus in the country to house live lion mascots.

Former UNA President Robert Guillot began the tradition on July 22, 1974, by bringing a 35-pound lion cub to live on campus. Leo I provided campus spirit for nearly 14 years before he died.

The great love the Shoals area had for Leo I resulted in another young cub being brought to Florence July 1988. The orphaned cub, named Leo II, came from a ranch in Texas. At 11 years old he weighed a whopping 600 pounds. In 1997 he was selected as the nation’s “Second Best Mascot” by Sports Illustrated. The University of Georgia’s English Bulldog mascot, Uga, was No.1. Leo II roared proudly for our campus for many years before dying February 2000.

A committee of students, faculty and townspeople decided to get another lion after Leo II died. Then-Senior Vice President Dan Howard asked if they could get two. It was voted on and the decision was made to adopt two lion cubs from a wildlife park in New Hampshire.

Our current mascots, Leo III and Una, are twins born Nov. 18, 2002.

Leo was named for the previous Leos, and Una for the university.

Anne Howard, their appointed caretaker, considers them her children. They slept in a cage in her living room for the first months of their lives, and with their sleep schedules much like a baby’s, Howard was up bottle-feeding them many times through the night.

The George H. Carroll Lion Habitat they reside in is a 12,764-square-foot state-of-the-art home with a two-bedroom lion house, nine surveillance cameras outside, six inside and high-voltage fences surrounding it.

“There’s even a sand box back there,” Howard said. “They’re both potty-trained.”

The USDA inspects the habitat every year to make sure everything is up to code. Everything is disinfected and cleaned daily.

“We’ve gotten a 100 percent (rating) 12 years in a row,” Howard said.

Howard is with them every day. She arrives around 7:00 a.m. each day to get them ready for the day. She has help feeding them and cleaning the habitat on some days, but others it is just her and her lions.

Though they were born in November, their birthdays are celebrated in April. Leo I’s birthday was in April, so the tradition of celebrating birthdays that month continues.

Just like any brother and sister they fight and annoy one another.

“They get on each other’s nerves and she picks on him without mercy,” she said.

But also, just like any brother and sister, they love one another. Though they sleep in separate areas, Howard said she often finds them in the morning lying close enough for their fur to touch.

“They adore each other,” she said.

Howard’s pride and love for the lions is evident in how she speaks about them and interacts with them.

UNA is lucky to have such a wonderful tradition and even luckier to have such a person to take care of them.