John Ball Zoo mourns loss of beloved African lion

John Ball Zoo is deeply saddened to announce the passing of Docha, the Zoo’s 16-year-old male African lion. Docha’s care team made the difficult decision to humanely euthanize him due to progressive neurological issues, along with his declining health and quality of life on Tuesday afternoon.

“Many have a real connection to Docha and he will be greatly missed”, said Peter D’Arienzo, CEO of John Ball Zoo. “He brought joy to many, and created real connections between people and wildlife that have advanced our mission, but most of all, he had a big personality that brought delight to literally millions of people.”

Docha had many health challenges in the past 10 to 12 years after developing epilepsy. Recently, his keepers noticed gradual changes that led the Zoo’s veterinarian, Dr. Ryan Colburn, to consult with Dr. Jill Neiderhuth a veterinary neurologist. Their observations of Docha led them to believe he had a lesion on the left side of his brain.

Confirming this diagnosis would have required Docha to be taken off-site for an MRI. Considering his age, health, and the inability to treat the lesion, Dr. Colburn and the team chose to begin close monitoring, while also attempting to alter Docha’s medications.

In recent days, the Zoo noticed a drastic change in Docha’s balance, stability, and simple motor functions. Due to these factors and the decline in the health and quality of his life, the difficult decision was made to humanely euthanize Docha.

“Docha’s story is a great example of the advancement of zoo medicine and how we can use medical technology and the expertise of veterinary specialists to provide the best possible care for our patients,” said Dr. Colburn. “In June 2011, after experiencing multiple seizures, Docha was transported to Michigan State University where he underwent an MRI that ultimately led to his diagnosis of epilepsy. In the wild, Docha would not have survived but since his diagnosis we have administered anti-seizure medication, along with consistent monitoring and care that led to a long life for Docha.”

Docha was born at Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens on April 10, 2005 and joined the John Ball Zoo family in May 2007. The average lifespan of an African lion in human care is 16.9 years and 10 to 14 years in the wild.

From the first day Docha stepped onto his habitat in 2007, he quickly became a favorite with John Ball Zoo guests and volunteers. He was an impressive ambassador for not only lions but all wild creatures.

“This is always an extremely difficult decision, but is especially difficult with an animal as unique as Docha,” said Tim Sampson, Animal Curator and Docha’s care giver since he arrived at John Ball Zoo. “Docha impacted the staff with his aloof personality and his goofy excitement especially when seeing his favorite people. He will be greatly missed.”

African lions are vulnerable in the wild. While not immediately threatened with extinction, their long-term survival is far from assured. African lions once lived across the entire continent of Africa, but have lost more than 92% of their native range to habitat loss.

Docha’s role in the Zoo as an ambassador for his species created educational moments and lifelong memories, while helping raise funds for the Lion Recovery Fund whose goal is to double the number of lions in the wild by 2050.

The animal care and veterinary staff at John Ball Zoo worked incredibly hard throughout this process. Docha will long be remembered as a wonderful ambassador for his species, and the impact he made will not be forgotten.

John Ball Zoo is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation founded in 1891 and located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Guided by the four core values of Conservation, Education, Community and Celebrate, John Ball Zoo accomplishes the mission to inspire our community to be actively engaged in the conservation of wildlife and our natural environment. For more information about John Ball Zoo, visit or call (616) 336-4301.