|Photo of Leo the Lion from the Ohio State Archives|
It all began way back in 1872.
Apparently, the city of Cincinnati was under siege by none other than caterpillars! So that year, Andrew Erkenbrecher and others organized the Society for the Acclimation of Birds. The society was responsible for importing initially around 1000 birds from Europe to take care of the caterpillar problem. But, just as you can imagine, this led to another problem even after the caterpillars were gone: what to do with the remaining "exotic" birds? In 1873, the zoological society of Cincinnati was born.
Two years later, on September 18, 1875, the new zoo opened. It was the second zoo in the whole country, opening just a mere 14 months after the Philadelphia Zoo. And, it was a small endeavor, with only 769 animals, over half being birds.
Over its long history, the zoo has struggled financially but today is regarded as a premiere example of education and conservation. It has picked up a variety of different species but more importantly to the paranormal world, it has picked up at least one ghost!
This ghost isn't a normal ghost. It isn't the spirit of one of the few human beings that dedicated his/her life to zoo work. It isn't anyone associated with a horrible park accident, or even having ties to the land on which the zoo was built. This ghost is a ghost cat....a lioness to be precise.
The book, Haunted Cincinnati and Southwest Ohio, by Jeff and Michael Morris, contains some of the best information available on this spooky tale of a phantom lioness who stalks her prey among the pathways of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Many witnesses have come forward with shockingly similar stories: if they are caught walking alone, anywhere in the park and at any time of day, the lioness will stalk them. Walking alone, one can hear the soft, yet heavy padded footsteps of four large paws following closely behind them. If they speed up, the phantom pursuer speeds up. A deep, low growl will come from behind them, and fearing the worse, the prey starts to run. When they are sure that they are about to be attacked, they turn around and find....NOTHING!
Others, however, turn around and catch a glimpse of two emerald shining eyes glaring at them. These eyes have also been observed peering at visitors from the ends of dark corridors and through the leafy green vegetation that spots the zoo's landscaping. Are these the eyes of the phantom lioness? And why is a lioness haunting the zoo to begin with?
No one really knows which of the park's many lionesses this phantom could belong to...or even why she might be there, as no lions have ever been involved in any particularly tragic circumstances. Instead, many believe that she is a guardian of the zoo.
Lions have long been associated with not only bravery and courage, but also of nobility and royalty. And, interestingly enough, the ancient Egyptians especially held lionesses in high regard, not only as fierce warriors and hunters (its the females that do the hunting) but as protectors. As "queen" of the animal kingdom, the lioness perhaps is protecting her subjects, long after her death.
The zoo was established by a group of German immigrants and in fact, the first guidebooks for the zoo were only available in German! There is a strong symbolism with the lion and Germanic heraldry, with two prominent Germanic bloodlines featuring a lion symbol on their crests. Does this perhaps tie in with the phantom lioness?
It is possible to potentially witness the phantom for yourself! While some sources say that the only time the lioness comes out is at night, others claim she prefers no time of day....just so long as you are alone. Since the zoo is often quite crowded during the day, its hard to find a place during normal business hours where you're completely alone, which is probably why after dark is heralded as being favorable. To get around these constraints, I would suggest going in the off-seasons, or visiting during the zoo's holiday festival of lights extended hours!
Vacationing in Cincinnati and looking for another great haunted family fun spot? Check out the Ghosts of Kings Island!