Leo, the MGM Lion, Was My Kitty

Leo, the MGM lion, was my kitty.

How many people can look back at a delightful period in their youth when a part-time job consisted of spending a few hours each afternoon watering and just looking at Leo, the MGM Lion?

Fortunately, I can. And on occasion, my job included feeding the Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver; Roy’s horse, Trigger; and Gene’s horse, Champion.

The horses were what helped make The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey afternoon matinee idols. It was always fun and interesting to feed and water those special four-legged movie stars — and not a one of them ever showed up with an attitude.

But my special attraction, the one I doted over the most, was the huge, handsome, full-maned Leo, the MGM lion that had the comfort of a double-wide cage. He loved to strut around and watch people who were watching him.

My primary job was to water Leo, and I had a long hose for that job. I was never allowed to feed him, because that process required two experienced trainers who worked in an incremental eight-sequence procedure that resembled a well-coordinated bank robbery.

While one zookeeper unlocked Leo’s outer cage, the second keeper used a gentle prod and pushed Leo back a few feet. The first guy then placed about 25 pounds of veterinarian-approved red, fresh horsemeat in front of the second, or inner, gate and the other guy had the prod ready to push in the entrée when his partner unlocked the second gate. The process was reversed when they finished.

The three-minute sequence required four weeks of training and follow-up training every other month.

When Leo finished his meal, I was the one who sprayed his trough clean and gave him water. It was the same process every afternoon, seven days a week.

Leo always slept late and was ready for his catered meal after he finished yawning, growling and applying a few licks of ablution to some body parts. He was never big on grooming, so the few licks were all he cared to do.

Each time I watered him, I had the distinct feeling that he was eyeing me as a possible appetizer to his main course.

I wanted to learn how to feed Leo, like the two zookeepers did, but the compound vet said I was too young. He told me to remind him again of my desire to feed Leo when I was in high school. That meant I couldn’t bother him again for two long years.

What amazed me about Leo was his rock solid predictable routine, his facial expressions and mannerisms.

He would act like a spoiled house cat when I showed up each afternoon. I hurried to him as quickly as I could when school was out, and he would always be on the west side of his corner cage looking toward the main gate. When he saw me he would lower his body and put his two front legs straight out and rest his enormous head on his knees with his eyes wide open, staring at me.

As I approached, he would rise, look at me and do his famous two-growl routine. He never growled just once. During the first moderate growl, the top of his head would be pointing left and his mouth be almost horizontal and pointing right. Then, when he did his second growl, he did the opposite.

It’s Leo’s reverse head position with the second, furious growl that viewers see at the beginning of each MGM movie.
I always applauded him when he stopped. He seemed to know that he was the star attraction.

We lived in Thousand Oaks in Southern California, and dad worked at Port Hueneme. I was in the seventh grade at Vallejo Elementary School and sometimes my teacher, Mrs. Waters, would excuse me a little early so I could go to work. She liked Leo, too.

The love I had for Leo has never left me. Each time I see the opening scene of an MGM movie, there’s Leo roaring just like he always roared at me when I showed up to water him.

He was my kitty for two years.

Categories: Movies