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George L. Mountainlion, His History

"The animals are ambassadors for their kind in the world of humans and the Desert Museum is their embassy," stated Bill Carr in reference to animals on display. He might well have added that the Desert Museum's finest diplomat was George L. Mountainlion.

George was a young lion, eight to twelve months old, who had been hand-raised in Southern California, when he was acquired by the Desert Museum. As a consequence of having arrived there on Washington's birthday, 1953, the lion was named George, with the L added for Leo.

It soon became apparent that George was a most unusual lion. He loved human attention and could be taken walking on the Museum grounds on a secure leash. He adored having his ears and chin scratched through the wire mesh of his cage. He recognized his keepers and other individuals who visited him regularly. He purred a most impressive rumbling purr when pleased, which was often, and answered to his name with excited yaps. His human friends could stand on the Museum patio and call out his name. From his cage along the desert path down below, George would respond with excited vocalizations and then switch to loud purring in anticipation of a human visitor.

Chin scratching through the wire of his enclosure and happy conversation provided by a human friend, and an admiring audience of Museum visitors, especially if children were present, would prompt an ecstatic George to youthful show-off, excited behavior. Lying on his back and grabbing either the end of his tail or a hind foot in his mouth, George would actually turn a somersault. And another. And another.

George took on almost human dimensions. He charmed visitors and dispelled old negative attitudes toward mountain lions in general. His handsome face and playful antics provided material for local newspapers and other publications. And his unusual reputation grew when he became a weekly columnist for the Sunday edition of the Arizona Daily Star. Of course, he did have some human assistance with that column, but the byline was George's alone. The lion's fame spread far and wide and with it spread the emerging reputation of the unique institution he came to represent.

George began to receive fan mail, as many as a hundred letters a month. Some were addressed simply to "George, Tucson, Arizona." They were delivered. A little girl in Cleveland wrote to tell George how much she loved him. Another child wrote, "This is the first time I have ever written to a lion."

There are those human individuals who would criticize the use of any degree of anthropomorphism where animals, such as George, are concerned. In answer to those concerns, Bill Carr, whose driving ambition was to bring people to nature, and nature to the people, defended its use. "In connection with our education policy, how do we handle the proposition of attributing human behavior and traits to non-human animals in the course of verbally instructing visitors? We certainly do not overdo anthropomorphism, neither are we afraid of it. . . we do consciously use an anthropomorphic approach to some of our teaching, especially with children, distinctly as the essential means to a desired end."

George L. Mountainlion became critically ill just two years after his arrival at the Desert Museum. As his condition became general knowledge, concern poured into the Museum in the form of letters, cards, and phone calls. A public appeal was made for donations of venison from the community's freezers in hope of improving his appetite. The two local newspapers carried daily bulletins regarding his condition.

But even when ill, George maintained his friendly nature. The veterinarian who treated him reported, "I've given him any number of injections, and George just looks back at me and purrs." The sick lion was taken to the San Diego Zoo for treatment. He could not be saved and died there from hepatitis. His death was reported in the two major Tucson newspapers with front-page headlines and photos. His many human friends sorrowed. A reporter noted, "I have never seen the passing of a pet, wild or tame, cause so much concern among so many people." A child's letter reflected the feelings of George's fans, "No other lion could ever take your place."

George was buried on the Museum grounds in early morning, private funeral services on March 12, 1955. Bill Carr wrote a tribute for George and Memorial Arts in Tucson inscribed it on a stone monument, which was erected over his grave directly opposite George's old enclosure. Today the stone rests in the Museum's history wall.

There have been other remarkable mountain lions at the Desert Museum. Soon after George's death another tame lion was obtained and he soon became George L. Mountainlion II. This lion had been found as a kitten in the Siskiyou Mountains of California and was hand raised. Willis Parker of the Parker Agency had trained "Siski" for television and movie work and offered the two-and-a-half year old, 125-pound, six-foot-long cat on loan as a replacement for George I. The offer was gratefully accepted.

Lew Walker brought George II, via station wagon, from California to Tucson. The lion was so tame Lew simply chained him in the back of the vehicle. It was a slow trip with frequent stops because the lion suffered from carsickness. Along the way he shredded some clothing for entertainment, and according to Lew, "A few miles west of Eloy, George slipped his chain and crawled into the front seat of the station wagon. For a while there I didn't know who was going to drive."

George II proved to be as tame and amenable as George I. He was taken for walks on the grounds, posed for pictures including one of him watching the excavation for the Tunnel exhibit being dug, and assumed the task of columnist for the Arizona Daily Star. Carr wrote, "This cat amazed everyone at the Museum with its lively, yet docile ways, its very apparent fondness for human companionship and its resemblance to his predecessor."

When George II's owner, Willis Parker, visited the Desert Museum some months after arrival there of the lion, George II immediately recognized him. The Arizona Daily Star reported, "Purring his pleasure, George nuzzled Parker and rubbed his head along the leg of his former owner." Mr. Parker, pleased with the home and care given George II, officially gave him to the Museum.

Two years later, George II became ill and Lew Walker drove him to the San Diego Zoo for treatment. Unfortunately history repeated itself and the lion died on December 6, 1956.

A young lion, also a patient in the zoo hospital while George II was there had been brought there from the wild with a broken leg received in a fight with an adult lion. His care at the zoo included insertion of a steel splint in his leg. Upon his recovery the lion was given to the Desert Museum and assumed the title of George III.

This lion number three filled the George role for the next sixteen years; for the last two of these he was joined by Georgette, a young female lion from New Mexico. George III died at age 17 on November 27, 1972.

Fortunately in 1971 the Museum had received two beautiful, young adult, exceedingly tame lions, one of which was Tom, who assumed the title George L Mountainlion IV. Found orphaned as babies, Tom and his sister, Honey, had been raised by Marvin Glenn and his son Warner, both the J-A Ranch near Douglas, Arizona.

With four lions in residence, it was Honey who gave birth to the Desert Museum's first mountain lion kitten in late June 1971, and Georgette who give birth to four cubs later the same week. The Tucson Citizen carried the happy news, "Old George L. Mountainlion would be proud."

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