Neka, the oldest African lion at the Oregon Zoo, died Friday night following a seizure, the zoo announced Saturday.
At 16, Neka was considered geriatric for her species. In the wild, female lions seldom live beyond the age of 16, though they have been known to live longer in human care.
“This is a heartbreaking day, especially for her care staff,” said Kelly Gomez, who oversees the zoo’s Africa area. “Some of our keepers had known Neka for 14 years, since she first arrived at the zoo. When you care for an animal every day like that, for years, you form incredibly close bonds. She was a beloved and beautiful lion, and it will not be the same without her.”
Neka was born at the Virginia Zoo in 2007 and came to Portland when the zoo opened its Predators of the Serengeti habitat in 2009. In 2013, she gave birth to a trio of cubs and keepers said she displayed exceptional parenting skills for a first-time mom — grooming, nursing and wrangling her cubs from the moment they were born.
Her cubs are now grown and living at other accredited zoos as part of the Species Survival Plan for African lions, a cooperative program aimed at supporting socially stable groups and maintaining a sustainable, genetically diverse lion population at facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
“Neka touched the hearts of millions of people during her life, and we hope her legacy will be one of inspiration and hope for her species,” Gomez said. “As recently as 25 years ago, lions were common throughout much of East Africa, but populations have been dwindling, and fewer than 25,000 wild lions are now thought to remain.”