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.
“Almost everyone over there can tell you a story,” Griffin Brooks said.
But the brothers still bonded with the social animals and even developed special relationships with particular lions.
They bonded with Lion Encounter staffers and other Zimbabweans, too. Each Saturday Colton and Griffin volunteered at an orphanage and both men were impressed with the kindness and hospitality they encountered throughout their trip.
The brothers donated school supplies to the orphanage and left nearly all the clothing and personal items they carried with Lion Encounter staff members as tokens of their appreciation.
Colton and Griffin Brooks encouraged other prospective travelers to volunteer with Lion Encounter. Lions only comprised part of was an incredible experience that included whitewater rafting, a visit to Victoria Falls and run-ins with elephants, hippos and other creatures.
“You kind of have to pinch yourself while you’re there,” Colton Griffin said.