A 23-year-old African lion known as Reilly has died at the North Carolina Zoo, after battling renal disease for years, according to zoo officials.
Reilly spent 21 years at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, about 70 miles west of Raleigh.
He was old by African lion standards. The median life expectancy for males is 17 years in captivity and up to 15 years in the wild, the zoo said in a news release.
In fact, Reilly was so old that he was considered the oldest male African lion at any of the 235-plus facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
“He was so tolerant of his rambunctious offspring and was fiercely devoted to his lady lion, Mekita,” Zookeeper Beth Malott said in the release. “Reilly was a one-of-a-kind soul, and his morning roars will be greatly missed.”
The “heart-wrenching” decision to euthanize Reilly came after several years of battling renal disease, which left him in a weakened physical state. He weighed 440 pounds at the peak of health, but was down to 394 in the past week, the zoo reported.
Renal disease is not uncommon in older African lions, and Reilly’s condition was worsened by a previously diagnosed case of spinal disease, officials said.
“As the oldest male in AZA zoos, he far exceeded the average lifespan for lions under human care,” according to Animal Management Supervisor Jodi Wiley.
Reilly was born in 1999 at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and came to North Carolina in 2001. He was a father of nine (three males and six females), the zoo said.
His offspring are important because African lions are a “vulnerable” species due to poaching and habitat loss, the International Union for Conservation of Nature reports. It is estimated between 23,000 and 39,000 remain in the wild, the organization says.
“With Reilly’s passing, Mekita is now the only lion at the Zoo. Decisions about future pride members, including possible mates for her, will be based on recommendations from the AZA,” zoo officials said.
News of Reilly’s death drew 2,000 reactions and comments within 30 minutes of being posted on Facebook, including some who referred to him as “your majesty.”
“I’m so saddened by this. I’ve been coming to see Reilly since I was a kid,” Kay Sutherland wrote.
“RIP Riley. Your presence helped us all. To watch you was inspiring,” Hannah Decker posted.
“Farewell Reilly, thanks (for) helping make my childhood memories,” Jennifer Pittman said.