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ASHEBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — Reilly, the North Carolina Zoo’s 23-year-old male lion, has died, according to an announcement from the zoo.

Reilly had been battling renal disease for several years, zoo officials say. He was the oldest male lion in an Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited institution.

Zoo officials write that Reilly with his advanced age and weakened physical state, the animal care team and veterinarians made the quality-of-life decision to euthanize him.

“He was so tolerant of his rambunctious offspring and was fiercely devoted to his lady lion, Mekita,” said Zookeeper Beth Malott, who worked with Reilly for eight years. “Reilly was a one-of-a-kind soul, and his morning roars will be greatly missed.”

Reilly was born at Lincoln Park Zoo on February 7, 1999, and came to the Zoo on March 23, 2001. He fathered a total of nine offspring.

Reilly and Mekita

Reilly and his mate, 12-year-old Mekita, have been considered one of the zoo’s most “iconic couples” since they two became acquainted when Mekita moved in about 11 years ago.

Reilly had just lost his first mate, Sala, when Mekita, at the time only one-year-old, came to North Carolina from the Columbus Zoo. 

The zoo says the two were introduced through a mesh barrier in a meeting that the zoo calls a “Howdy,” but the lions spent weeks showing only indifference towards one another. When the zoo finally let down the barrier, sparks flew and not in a good way.

“Mekita came charging into the room and smacked Reilly across the face,” the zoo said in a 2020 blog post. “They tussled; Reilly pinned her down to show his dominance.  She sprung up and smacked him again.  Again, he pinned her. After less than a minute, the lions were separated, and introductions were over.”

The zoo went back to Howdies, but even the mesh barrier wasn’t enough to fully ease the tensions.

“At first, Mekita was terrified but slowly warmed up to Reilly, and eventually started showing all those behaviors we were looking for in the beginning,” the zoo said. “She would approach the mesh, sniff him and then flop down on the floor rolling around in a sign of submission. We were also terrified but decided the time had come to try opening the door again.”

It had been months since their first face-to-face meeting when the zoo decided to drop the mesh once again — and this time things went great.

“This time was different because Reilly didn’t care to establish his dominance,” the zoo said. “He let Mekita push him around. She would steal his bone. She would scratch up his majestic face with her claws. She even injured his tail with a swift bite. Reilly would cower in the corner of the habitat, and she wouldn’t let him move around his home for the last 12 years.”

The secret ingredient to spark Reilly’s interest in Mekita probably wasn’t what you’d expect: the feces of another lion. The zoo had male lion feces shipped in and they placed it in the hall of their night quarters. The zoo says knowing there is competition can jumpstart a lion’s libido.

“When they are separated briefly to eat their dinner, they call back and forth to each other,” the zoo said. “Reilly always leaves a few crumbs behind for his lady, and when they are back together, they sniff each other and head butt, like long-lost lovers. Then she finishes off the crumbs of his dinner, and he waits for her before they head back out to their hillside together.”

Reilly’s Legacy

On July 30, 2014, Reilly and Mekita had four cubs: two girls and two boys.

The zoo decided to name them with the help of the public through a community naming contest. Katie Mills of Greensboro, Rilee Cowan of Holly Ridge, Julie Higgins of Greensboro and Kim Currin of Oxford won. The two boys were named Khari, which means kingly, and Kirabo, which means gift from God. The two girls were named Savanna, for the grasslands in Africa, and Lololi, which means there is always love.

Savanna and Lololi, later renamed Shelby and Salem, moved to Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 2017. According to Michigan Live, Shelby and Salem helped Binder Park Zoo open their new lion exhibit alongside male lion Enzi.

In August 2020, Binder Park Zoo shared photos of the trio in their enclosure and wrote, “It took a long time and a lot of patience but our trio of African lions are finally on exhibit TOGETHER this season here at the zoo! Handsome Enzi and his two ladies Shelby and Salem are a most impressive pride, don’t you think?”

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Khari and Kirabo, later renamed Boone and Vander, moved to Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, Florida, in 2020. Boone and Vander brought Lion Country Safari’s total to 11 lions, according to WPTV.

On July 25, the Lion Country Safari posted on Facebook, “Vander and his brother, Boone, are always together, like two paws in a pod! They both have a great head of fur, but you can identify Vander by the V-shaped wrinkle on his forehead!”

With Reilly’s death, Mekita is now the only lion at the North Carolina Zoo. Decisions about future pride members, including possible mates for Mekita, will be based on recommendations from the AZA.