When zookeeper Agnes Mululeke threw Triton the lion a toy, she was shocked by his reaction. In fact, his response not only said a great deal about his personality, but it has also made the lion famous around the globe.
Mululeke works at South Africa’s Johannesburg Zoo, which Triton calls home. When the zoo first opened in 1904, it was home to only a small collection of animals, including just a single lion, a leopard and a giraffe. Over time, though, the zoo has grown to host a wide variety of creatures from more than 320 different species.
Among the most notable there, moreover, are the so-called “Big 5” – Africa’s greatest and most dangerous animals. The term was first coined by big game hunters, and these creatures are the most difficult in all of Africa to hunt and to capture. Specifically, the “Big 5” are elephants, buffalo, rhinos, leopards and, of course, lions – the “King of the Beasts.”
Triton the lion, meanwhile, was born at Johannesburg Zoo in the late 1990s and was hand-reared by the zookeepers. And while he was one of ten such big cats living at the zoo at the time, he was apparently the only one to show interest in the particular activity that has brought him worldwide fame.
That’s not the only thing that makes Triton special, though: he’s also noteworthy for being a white lion. White lions are part of the same species as their tawny cousins but are lighter in color due to a recessive gene. If the recessive gene is found in both the mother and father, moreover, it will produce white lion offspring. And white lions’ coats range from a blond color through to pure white, although their manes do get darker with age.
Furthermore, white lions such as Triton are rarely ever found in nature, though they are more common in captivity. Still, according to his keeper, Mululeke, Triton does not carry any tawny-colored genes. This means that he is a true rarity.
It is not, however, Triton’s unique genes that have made him such a hit with his keeper and with zoo visitors. That popularity began, in fact, after the keepers noted that Triton had grown bored with his environment and had become lethargic. Naturally, they then decided to find a way to put a bit more variety into the lion’s life. So Mululeke, who is also the curator of the carnivore section of Johannesburg Zoo, gave him a toy to play with. His reaction to it, however, was totally unexpected.
Lion cubs typically play with anything that they can find. That includes ostrich eggs, which they roll around – half for fun, half as practice for hunting. As they mature, though, male lions usually grow out of such habits. Adult females, on the other hand, often remain playful and will continue to mess around with the cubs.
Triton, however, is clearly an exception. He has remained playful beyond his younger years, offering a great source of amusement for tourists as well as for his keeper. In fact, she actively encourages his fun and games.
This enthusiasm also sets Triton apart from the other lions at Johannesburg Zoo, who are usually a relaxed group. Indeed, Mululeke told Barcroft TV in 2011 that normally “you’ll hardly see the lions doing anything.” Once she throws Triton his toy, though, this all changes. Indeed, at this point, as seen in a video produced by Barcroft TV, the lion suddenly becomes excited and energetic.
It all begins when Mululeke calls down to the lion, “Come, Triton.” And the animal acknowledges his keeper by raising his enormous, fluffy, golden-maned head. The clip then shows Mululeke throwing Triton his treasured toy to play with in the enclosure below.
The toy in question? A soccer ball. And his reaction to the ball is truly something to see. The video shows the big cat seeming to turn back into a kitten, batting the item around with his giant paws, much like a domestic cat would with a ball of wool.
Indeed, Triton the lion seems to love playing soccer. The video, for instance, sees him skillfully dribbling the ball around his enclosure, even following it into the water when the ball rolls in. And fans have shown their support for the big cat with an unusual hobby in hundreds of comments across the web. One person wrote, for example, “That’s the first time I’ve seen a lion decide to jump into water just for fun – he must really love that ball!”
Another commenter dubbed the animal “Lion-el Messi,” likening him to the F.C. Barcelona soccer star. Meanwhile, others have suggested that the lion would be great playing in an attacking position, though that might have more to do with his teeth than with his way of playing.
And highly impressed by Triton’s skills, Mululeke has seemed more than happy to tell the world about the lion. She even joked about his talents while talking to the Daily Mail in January 2010, saying, “I think Triton could teach real [soccer players] a thing or two with his skills.”
Triton might be a selfish player, however. According to the Daily Mail, Triton refuses to share the ball or to play along with any of the female lions in his enclosure. Mululeke noted, “It’s clear he thinks it’s a man’s game. He won’t share it with any of the ladies.”
Since Triton first came to fame as a soccer-loving lion, though, he has now retired. Furthermore, staff have told Scribol that Triton now rarely plays soccer due to his old age. However, he remains in good health and lives happily at the zoo.
It’s worth noting that Triton is not the only soccer-playing lion in the world, though. Indeed, he even has competition within South Africa itself. This comes via Kevin Richardson, also known as the “Lion Whisperer.” He has a reputation for actually being able to touch and feed wild lions and reportedly has a special connection with the animals.
In a World Cup promotion for suit maker Van Gils, he did much more than that, though. To wit, he was filmed playing soccer with three wild lions while wearing a suit. But the zookeeper and animal behaviorist has spent most of his adult life working with the big cats, which is why he’s confident that even if dressed formally and sporting a ball, they’re no danger to him. Perhaps one day Richardson can extend a hand to Triton and meet up for a gentle kick-about?
And seeing a big cat like Triton acting like a kitten is certainly a stunning sight. Indeed, it just goes to show that there’s playfulness in all of us, no matter how fearsome we might look. Let’s just hope, though, that Triton can enjoy his well-deserved retirement.