Lake Superior Zoo lion, 'Leo,' dies at 14

Early indications are that the male African lion died, in his sleep, of an autoimmune disease.

A male lion roars in close-up, looking to the left of the frame.
Leo, a male African lion in the custody of the Lake Superior Zoo, has died at age 14.
Contributed / Heidi Beal
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DULUTH — The Lake Superior Zoo announced Thursday that "Leo," their male African lion, has died in his sleep at age 14.

"He was a gentle giant and the dominant lion in his sibling group pride," said Lizzy Larson, his keeper of 13 years, in a statement. "My life and the Lake Superior Zoo will forever be changed by Leo."

According to the zoo, Leo outlived the typical life expectancy for a lion in the wild. University of Minnesota pathologists will conduct a postmortem examination, but early indications are that the lion died of an autoimmune disease.

Leo, who is survived by sisters Lily and Malkia, was remembered by zoo staff for his intelligence and his interest in art. Zookeeper Emily Perala said in a statement that Leo "was a masterful painter, and truly loved the scent of paint, rolling around on canvases and bearing a colorful coat for days to come."

The zoo is inviting visitors to pay their respects by visiting Lily and Malkia. A location will be designated for a memorial, and the zoo is accepting donations toward providing the female lions "extra enrichment and love."


"He inspired hundreds of thousands of people to care about the conservation of African lions," said Haley Hedstrom, Lake Superior Zoo CEO, in a statement. "Leo will be greatly missed by all who had the chance to meet him."

It's been a bittersweet year for Minnesota zoos and aquariums. March alone saw the surprise birth of twin pygmy slow lorises at the Lake Superior Zoo, the death of a Virginia opossum at the Great Lakes Aquarium, and the death of an Amur tiger at the Minnesota Zoo. Earlier this month, the Minnesota Zoo welcomed a new tiger.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at or 218-279-5536.
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