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July 16, 2013

Traverse City brothers share month with lions

TRAVERSE CITY — Spending a month alongside 200-pound plus African lions armed with razor-sharp teeth and claws sounds like a bad idea to most people, but a pair of Traverse City brothers can’t wait to do it again.

Northwestern Michigan College students Colton Brooks,19, and his brother Griffin, 21, recently returned from a trip to Zimbabwe, where they volunteered with Lion Encounter, an African-based conservation, travel and tourism company.

The Brooks brothers have always been interested in wildlife; they grew up catching frogs and snakes in their backyard. But a Traverse City backyard couldn’t prepare them for their first encounter with the big cats.

“It’s terrifying, being around something that is the most impressive predator on the planet,” Colton Brooks said. “It’s an incredible experience.”

Lion Encounter volunteers, who pay to take part in the program, ready the lions for release into a semi-wild, 500-acre enclosure. The program’s overall goal is to release the lions’ offspring from the enclosure into the wild, thereby bolstering a wild population that has been reduced by more than half since the 1950s, according to the conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife.

Colton and Griffin Brooks worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. most days feeding and caring for lions, and assisting with client walks, where tourists paid a fee to walk the savanna alongside an unrestrained lion.

Lions’ behavior is largely dictated by dominance, an understanding that starts with eye level in the pride. The brothers said they had to avoid lowering their eye levels while working with the lions, and in one particularly alarming incident Griffin swatted the head of a female named Thuli after she challenged him with their eyes nearly level.

There’s no doubt lions and other African animals are capable of maiming or killing. Just ask Zimbabwean natives.

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