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UNA mourns loss of beloved lion Leo III

FLORENCE — As rain fell across Florence early Friday morning, the University of North Alabama community awoke to news that its beloved lion, Leo III, had died. 

I got the news in a text from my daughter, a UNA senior set to graduate next week: “Why did Leo have to go before graduation?”

“The university campus mourns the loss of Leo III,” said Dr. Ken Kitts, UNA’s President. “Dena and I have treasured our time as his neighbors and hearing him roar. He will forever be a part of the UNA family, an ambassador, and a focal point of our historic and storied campus.

“Leo III will be deeply missed by the Kitts family, the campus, and UNA supporters across the globe.”

Leo III and Una

Una and Leo III were born Nov. 18, 2002, at a wildlife refuge in New Hampshire. Dr. Dan Howard and his wife, Annemarie Howard, brought them back to the Shoals, and always made sure the lions were well loved and well cared for. After living with the Howards during their habitat’s construction, the two lions moved into the George H. Carroll Lion Habitat in 2003.

Leo and Una as cubs. (UNA Photo)

In June 2020, Una passed away after veterinarians found an inoperable tumor. Dan Howard passed away in January 2022, and Anne Howard passed away suddenly in January 2024, leaving Leo III without his three best mates.

Local veterinarians Dr. Randall Smith, Dr. Matt Connolly, Dr. Bill Connolly, and Dr. Brandon Fisher provided the finest medical care as a charitable contribution, university officials said.

“Leo’s passing was peaceful, and his caregiver, Brandon Kutz, was by his side,” said Fisher, one of the two local veterinarians who have provided care for Leo III throughout his life. “It has been an honor to care for Leo III and his sister, Una. Being able to watch them grow from cubs into the majestic big cats they were has been the highlight of my career as a veterinarian.”

Campus memories

Staff, students, and alumni shared their memories of Leo.

“I watch the Lion Cam every morning,” said Gigi Broadway, senior administrative assistant for Guillot University Center Operations. “My favorite memory is from Leo and Una’s time together playing. Leo might have been the king of the jungle, but Una ruled that habitat. Now that Leo is gone, there’s a hole in my heart in the shape of a paw print.”

(UNA contributed)

For Juliette Butler, who was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, next to Nairobi National Park, Leo was a connection to home. Butler is senior administrative assistant in Student Engagement.

“We had a fenced backyard, but living next to the park, animals would jump the fence,” said Butler, a 1991 UNA graduate. “I remember when our neighbors went for a walk once and came back to find two lions lying on their front porch.

“I’m going to miss Leo’s roar. You cannot have UNA without Leo – when people think of UNA they think of Leo. I’m going to miss him a lot.”

Rising senior and Student Government Association Vice President Mandy McGinnis said Leo sparked community interest.

“Having Leo was something unique to UNA and it always brought the community to campus. It’s part of our history and it’s sad to see him pass on. So many different generations – students, alumni, the community – got to share in Leo’s tradition. It was always fun to go visit him after leaving the library.”

Leo’s legacy

“Leo was the heart of the campus. He created electricity and a buzz,” said alum Anna Leigh Rossi, director of Fraternity and Sorority Life. “I really love working here and being able to hear him roar every day. His legacy lives on forever.”

For Desiree Cole, the live lion tradition is also family tradition. Her dad, Jarius Hayes, was a Lions starter on all three NCAA Division II National Championship teams, when Leo II ruled campus. Leo III was the lion when Cole graduated in 2017, and she has continued the tradition with her children. Cole is administrative assistant for Presidential Mentors Academy and Enrollment Management.

“I had my first baby, Eden, in 2019, and we’ve been coming to see Leo ever since. Then we I had my son, Harrison, we started bringing him,” Cole said. “Since our newest daughter, Kingslyn, is only three months old, we didn’t get to bring her to meet Leo yet. And that makes me sad. Being able to share Leo with my babies has been special.”

Leo’s last class

When my daughter, Riley, and more than 1,000 other students graduate May 10 and 11, it will mark Leo’s final class. As Riley noted, the class of 2024 and Leo and Una are all from the same generation.

“When the high school class of 2020 was about to enter our freshman year at UNA, Una passed away,” she said. “Now, four years later as we’re about to graduate, Leo has passed away. It won’t be the same on campus without him.

“Leo loved to sit in the sun if it wasn’t too hot and he would roar so loud during class. I sure did love having a live lion at my college. Other places have live animals, but a lion? Only at the University of North Alabama.”

As for whether the university will have another live lion on campus, UNA officials said in a statement, “We are focused now on honoring the life and legacy of Leo III, treasuring our memories of him and the years we were able to enjoy having him with the UNA family on campus. During the next several months, we will evaluate how best we can honor Leo III and the other lions that have been part of our community. We will also evaluate how best we can continue to stay connected to this magnificent species. We will continue to keep the UNA community updated as this process moves forward.”

U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, whose Fourth Congressional District includes UNA, said in a statement, “I was saddened to hear of the passing of Leo. My staff visited with Leo just two weeks ago while on a tour of the Shoals area, where they got to hear him roar and watch him play. As someone who attended UNA, I know how deeply this loss is felt.

“I send my condolences to all the students, alumni, staff and the UNA/Florence community as a whole. Leo and his mighty roar will be missed.”

A special memorial for Leo III will be planned to coincide with his birthday in November. In the meantime, the Habitat will be available to those who would like to leave tributes or memorials to Leo III or Una. 

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