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Meet the lion lady at Kings County's Oaklawn Farm Zoo

Maria Weinberg gets some cuddles from Hunter, one of the lions at the Oaklawn Farm Zoo in Aylesford. - Maria Weinberg
Maria Weinberg gets some cuddles from Hunter, one of the lions at the Oaklawn Farm Zoo in Aylesford. - Maria Weinberg - Contributed

Dealing with big cats, and especially lions, can be an interesting exercise — and no one knows that better than Maria Weinberg.

“You can make friends with them, and it definitely helps to have raised them from birth," says Weinberg, who is widely known as the lion lady at Oaklawn Farm Zoo.

Weinberg has worked at Millville, Kings County-based zoo since 2005, and has been in charge of the ‘big cats’, particularly Oaklawn’s pride of African lions, for close to eight years.

But Weinberg, who grew up in nearby Auburn, figures she “has been here, off and on, for most of my life.”

Her personal history is intrinsically tied with the zoo.

“My parents met here at the zoo. My mom (who passed away in 2016) used to call the lions here her ‘grand-lions’. Nnenne, which means ‘mother’s mother’, is kind of named for her," Weinberg said.

Weinberg has loved all animals as long as she can remember and has always had a special place in her heart for lions, although she works with all of the big cats at the zoo, including a Siberian tiger, a South American jaguar, a cheetah, and a Canadian lynx.

“I’ve always been fascinated by lions. How big and strong they are, but that they also have a gentle side, particularly if they know and trust you," she says.

“It’s not just because I work with them every day. I just love lions.”

Passion for animals

All five of the current Oaklawn pride of five lions — three males and two females. - Maria Weinberg
All five of the current Oaklawn pride of five lions — three males and two females. - Maria Weinberg

After graduating from high school at West Kings, Weinberg tried college for a bit, “but it wasn’t for me. I realized I didn’t want to sit in a classroom. I’d rather be outside with the animals.”

She asked Oaklawn co-owner and founder Gail Rogerson for a job and lucked out.

"They still had their old pride, and Gail was the only one allowed in with them. There was a keeper, but she didn’t go in with the big cats," Weinberg said.

When the zoo obtained Sterk, the first of its new pride, in 2012, Weinberg's dreams came true.

“That’s when I started handling the lions. Sterk was about four months old when he came, and I started with him," she says.

At first, Sterk was “pretty nervous” in his new surroundings.

“I would sit with him in the den and read to him. We read a book about unique friendships among animals," she says.

“There was a story about a lion, a bear and a tiger that grew up together.”

Weinberg quickly developed a bond with Sterk, who is now six years old. The next new lion, a female named Nyah, was 10 months old when she came and is also now six.

Obi, a male cub born in September 2013, arrived at Oaklawn later that fall. Obi and Nyah are the parents of the two youngest lions born at the zoo — Hunter, born in April 2016, and Nnenne (Nee), born in October 2016.

Lions, she points out, “can be ferocious animals.” Even with the lions in captivity at Oaklawn, “the wild instinct is still there. I’d never go into the pen with a cat that I hadn’t raised.”

Even now, she says, she's always cautious.

“When they’re in a bad mood — and you can tell — I don’t go near them.”

Daily duties

Hunter, pictured here, could be the next lion at Oaklawn Farm Zoo in line for Guinness Book of World Records honours. One of Oaklawn’s former lions, Rutledge, since deceased, was certified as the largest living lion in captivity, measuring 108 centimetres at the shoulders. Hunter was recently measured 115 cms at the shoulders and is still only three years old – lions don’t normally reach full maturity until age five, so he still has some growing to do. - Maria Weinberg
Hunter, pictured here, could be the next lion at Oaklawn Farm Zoo in line for Guinness Book of World Records honours. One of Oaklawn’s former lions, Rutledge, since deceased, was certified as the largest living lion in captivity, measuring 108 centimetres at the shoulders. Hunter was recently measured 115 cms at the shoulders and is still only three years old – lions don’t normally reach full maturity until age five, so he still has some growing to do. - Maria Weinberg

Weinberg, whose home is “about two minutes away” from her work, usually starts her day around 7:30 a.m.

“The first thing I do is check all the cats and make sure they’re OK. Then I grab a brush and brush their manes, and then give them their treats.”

Most days, she says, the lions are inside when she arrives and after they are groomed and get their treats, head out to find a sunny spot to spend the day.

After that, the real cleaning starts. Weinberg cleans all the dens daily — a task that takes about two-and-a-half hours. Around Oaklawn, she adds, “there’s always lots to keep you busy.”

In the late afternoon, a public feeding is held. Right now, it’s at 4 p.m., but it will be 5 p.m. once the days get longer.

Weinberg gets asked a lot of questions in the run of a season.

“I like it when people ask questions, because it helps educate people," she says, adding "there are a lot of misconceptions” about big cats in general and lions in particular.

"People see me in the cage with them, and think anyone can do it. It’s not for everybody. For me, they’re my family, but even I wouldn’t go in with them if I hadn’t raised them,” she said.

“I hear from a lot of people that I have their dream job. It’s pretty amazing, getting to work with these animals like I do. Some people might think I have a boring life, but not me. I’m like a cat. I like routines, and I love coming to work every day. With all that’s going on in the world, these guys can always put a smile on my face.”

Weinberg says she is asked a lot if she has a favourite lion, and although she loves them all, one has a special place in her heart.

“Hunter is definitely my favourite, personality-wise. I was raising Hunter when my mom passed away. He gave me a reason to get up in the morning. That’s the reason I care for him so much," she said.

Weinberg is always in search of more information about big cats.

“I watch a lot of documentaries. I’ve watched the same documentary several times because I enjoy seeing it," she says.

“Nobody knows everything about everything, and I’m always finding out things I didn’t know. I’ve never been to Africa, so I’ve never seen a pride of African lions in the wild. Someday, perhaps.”

But, for now, she's following her passion, right here at home.

"There’s nowhere else I want to be. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to work with these amazing animals. I work six days a week, and I only take a day off because they make me. Most people don’t enjoy their job that much.”

http://www.oaklawnfarmzoo.ca/

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