“In my earliest memory of lions,” Shri Goswami said, “I was around eight. I had gone with my parents to a small zoo. We walked into the big-cat area, and what jumped out at me, what I still remember, was their musky smell.” Growing up in India, though, Shri (and the rest of the country) was more interested in tigers, the national animal, so he didn’t give lions much further thought, until about 15 years later.
Now living in Greensboro, NC, he had traveled to visit his parents in Texas. “It was Christmas Day, and we were looking for something to do,” he said. The Austin Zoo, they discovered, was open. As they approached its lion habitat, there it was—that same musky scent. “I looked into the den area, and it was dark, but I thought I could see a face out there. Everyone else was ready to move on, but I kept standing there, hoping this lion was going to come out. As I was about to give up, I turned my back and immediately heard my family gasp,” he said, “the lion was right by us at the fence, after running full charge. I was in awe at his size and power. In that moment, something just sparked.”
When he got back to Greensboro, Shri googled “big cats nearby.” He discovered the Animal Park at the Conservators Center and joined a tour that weekend. The highlight, he says, was the lions. “Seeing more than one together, the pride dynamic, I hadn’t seen that at any other zoo,” he said. “I was fascinated.” Shri recalls listening quietly until the group got to lion brothers Thomas and Ra. “Wait, who is Ra?” he asked the guide when she mentioned the pair. “Something about the name resonated, and seeing the relationship between the brothers, since I have a brother myself.”
Shri knew he was in the right place. “I asked in the middle of the tour, ‘How do I volunteer?’ Not knowing anything about what that entailed, I wanted to sign up—right then!” By the next weekend, in March 2015, he was an animal care volunteer, prepping diets and cleaning habitats. He spent all the time he could with Ra and Thomas, and within a few years, added tour guide to his role.
With many of the park’s animals in their senior years, part of being a volunteer is coping with the loss of a friend. “I saw Thomas decline with age,” Shri said. “When he died, for me, it became all about Ra. I joined the Park’s Lifetime Adoption program as his adopter. I wanted to help him through the grieving process.” From then on, any chance he got, Shri was beside Ra’s habitat, sitting with him, each simply enjoying the other’s company. Within a year, the two would have a chance to grow even closer.
In the hottest months of 2017, Ra became less interested in his daily diet, which is not unusual in summer, especially for older animals. But he was still quite interested in the extra treats his adopters offered on weekends. Someone mentioned that it would be great if Shri could visit on weekdays but of course he couldn’t because he had a job. “I said, ‘Wait a minute—I can,’” Shri recalled. “And that summer was life-changing. I really bonded with him, those evenings, and he started eating.” The scenario repeated the next summer, and the next. With a new son at home, Shri said he couldn’t have spent that time with Ra without support from his wife.
Then a job opportunity arose that was too good to refuse—based in California. “I took the job,” Shri said, “but there was no way I was leaving that lion.” So, for six months, he traveled home on weekends to see his family and be at the park. “I’d finish at work Friday, hop on a redeye, get home at 6 a.m. Saturday, be at the park by 11, and fly back Monday morning.” When he felt he had demonstrated his commitment to his job, he spoke with his boss, who immediately supported moving Shri to work-from-home status.
He made the most of his extra time at the park, where he helped welcome a new lioness and her three cubs and began leading an educational program called Wild About Lions. Months passed. Then, in October 2021, after seeing his friend’s quality of life deteriorate with age, he visited Ra one last time on the day veterinarians assisted him in passing peacefully at age 17.
“I could really see the circle of life,” Shri said. “They couldn’t replace Ra for me, but to watch these little cubs, full of energy—the timing couldn’t have been better.”
And yes, he’s now the adopter of all four of those lions, plus one. When asked if his son has inherited his love of big cats, Shri laughed. “He doesn’t care for them as much as I do. When we visit, he starts with Dexter Green Iguana. I’ve tried my best!”
676 E. Hughes Mill Road
Burlington, NC 27217
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