- Associated Press - Sunday, April 20, 2014

FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) - Roberta Mc-Kinney was fascinated by Leo III and Una when they were just lion cubs, learning their way around the outdoor habitat at the University of North Alabama.

She came to campus almost daily to take pictures of the cubs. A few months after she started showing up and sharing photos with Anne Howard, the lion’s primary caretaker, McKinney received an offer she couldn’t turn down - the chance to be part of the team that cares for UNA’s two African lions.

McKinney is one member of a six-person team that makes sure the lions are fed and cared for each day. The Lion Crew also accompanies Leo and Una to UNA events, such as sports games and parades.

McKinney comes Monday and Wednesday afternoons to help prepare dinner and clean up.

“It’s an understatement to say I was excited to get this chance,” McKinney said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m just fascinated by them.”

That was 111/2 years ago.

“I can’t believe it has been that long,” she said. “I still love being with them.”

Anne Howard leads the team of volunteers that cares for Leo and Una. She arrives at the habitat each morning to let them out of their lion-sized sleeping quarters and stays during the day to monitor their activity. She’s there each evening when it’s time to bring the brother and sister in for their evening meal and rest.

It can take a lot of coaxing to get the cats to come in for dinner. Leo won’t come without Una, and she can be a little stubborn.

Lion Crew volunteers start with hand-made meatballs to lure the lions. If that doesn’t work, it’s trial and error to convince Leo and Una to come in. Sometimes a spray bottle of goat’s milk does the trick. Other times is a bone or a toy that gets them moving. And sometimes nothing works.

“There have been times that Anne has had to stay here with them,” McKinney said. “It’s been as late as 8 or 9 p.m. … before they decide to come in.”

There is one trick that McKinney is sure will work, but Howard isn’t as enthusiastic.

“One night we were trying to get them in and Anne got the big garbage can,” McKinney said. “She was pulling the can trying to get their attention and somehow she fell into the garbage can. They both came running over to check on her.”

Howard’s been with Leo and Una since they came to Florence. Her husband, Dan Howard, was vice president of advancement at UNA and rounded up the support to build the habitat and bring the cubs to town. They were just 6 weeks old when they left the Greenville Wildlife Habitat in Greenville, N.H., to come to Florence.

“Since they had to be bottle fed, they just came to our house,” Howard said. “When they were weaned, we traded houses. They were at my house, and now I come to theirs.”

Each morning Leo and Una are let out of their enclosed sleeping area to a large sandbox to do their business. Yes, they are litter-box trained, Howard said.

While they are in the litter box, Howard and Danny Griffin clean the outdoor play area, picking up trash, toys and any mess the lions have left. Once they are finished there, the lions are let out so Griffin and Howard can clean their indoor enclosure. After both areas are clean, the lions are free to come in and out at their leisure.

And every evening at about 4:30 p.m., Howard and a volunteer begin preparing the evening meal.

There are always two volunteers doing the feeding so each lion gets dinner at the same time.

There is no favoritism, Howard said. And, Leo and Una have a special way of thanking the volunteers that care for them.

“They are saying ‘goodnight,’” Howard said as Leo and Una roar from inside

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