In recognition of World Lion Day on August 10, let’s re-visit the life of a lion many people never hear about. He was Honorary Operator in the South African Special Forces decades ago, a lion born in captivity at a zoo in South West Africa. Having been adopted as a cub by the Operators, he went to be their mascot at Fort Doppies, where he eventually led the life of a wild lion.
Teddy and Lisa were brother and sister lion cubs. Lions reproduce quite well in captivity and the zoo had too many big cats. It needed to find them a new home quickly. The Lianshulu safari company acquired them but the overly playful babies were too much to handle. The Recces, the elite reconnaissance unit of the South African Defence Force, with a training base at Fort Doppies in the Caprivi area of Namibia (then South West Africa) heard about this dilemma. The Fort officially adopted the rapidly growing cubs with the intent of releasing them into the wild in the Caprivi after an adjustment period at the base. Lisa came back to the Fort one day with severe injuries from a fight with a wild lion and had to be put down.
Teddy, however, adapted well to his double life at the Fort and in the bush and would always be there waiting for the men before or after their training or deployment. During the harsh and hazardous duty served in the South African Border War of the 1970s and 1980s, the men’s morale was boosted by
this powerful but friendly lion. The Operators let him have free run and go outside the Fort, feeding him every day or every other day, sometimes shooting game for him and sometimes feeding him meat scraps from the mess hall. Frequently they invited him to a braai.
The Recces have many stories to share about their magnificent mascot. Teddy enjoyed staying with the Operators in the “Survival Camp”. He used to regularly sleep in the “bivvie” (a small bush shelter) of one of the Operators, forcing him to sleep outside, only to have Teddy virtually destroy the shelter playing with objects inside.
Another story concerns a reluctant Operator tasked with feeding him one afternoon. This particular Operator resented doing this in his all too rare free time. Picking up the meat for Teddy, he went to look for him and found him not far outside the front gate of Fort Doppies.
Teddy growled at him, which seemed unlike the good natured cat he was accustomed to seeing around the Fort. He also made striking motions with his front paws. His mane was matted and torn. No matter. The Operator, already feeling a bit incensed, tossed the meat to Teddy instead of taking it to him and then he stood in front of the lion shouting at him for a few more minutes. The Operator then strode into the pub and there, with the other Operators, sat Teddy. The Operator had walked up to a wild lion, had fed it and shouted at it!
Teddy’s sudden appearance at the rest facilities and pub sometimes frightened the few visitors who occasionally entered Fort Doppies. As a result some anti-Teddy barriers were erected around the housing during period when visitors were going to visit, or when the Operators needed a good night’s sleep without having a lion suddenly lying on them, licking their faces. Visitors coming to Fort Doppies were advised beforehand to be on the lookout for the lion.
At one stage, a group of cabinet ministers arrived for a visit to Fort Doppies. The Operators had not especially looked forward to the visit. Somehow no one informed them about Teddy and no one told them that the toilet facilities at the Fort were located away from the anti-Teddy barriers. One cabinet minister proceeded to the facilities, and when he opened the door of the cubicle to leave he found the way blocked by a gigantic lion. Although some of the Operators recall years later that while they were relaxing in the lounge, they thought they heard shouts of panic, but their radio was turned up to almost maximum volume. They were not sure if they heard anything but the radio. Hours later the cabinet minister was nowhere to be found. Strangely, the search began on the opposite side of the base to the toilet facilities and the last place to be searched was the facilities. Here, the Operators found Teddy sleeping outside a cubicle that was closed and bolted firmly. This was the only visit the cabinet ministers ever made to Fort Doppies.
A retired Operator recalls this story: “We learned later on that one of our instructors, namely Capt. Jakes (Jakkerbos) Jakobs had a pathological fear of Teddy and did not trust this tame Lion as far as he could see him. With this valuable knowledge in mind, us ‘new looks ‘ decided to pull a prank on Jakkerbos and late one night opened the entrance to the bungalow where Jakkie was sleeping so that Teddy could do a repeat performance on him, as he did on Basie (another Operator). Miraculously it worked like clockwork and again at some ungodly hour of the night we were woken by screams and shouts and the most obscene swear words from the direction of Jakkie’s bungalow. We knew that Teddy had revenged some of the hammerings that Jakkie had dished out to us on Survival Course.”
Teddy stayed with the men at Fort Doppies for many years, eventually going on to live the life of a wild lion as the head of a pride of shapely lionesses! Teddy’s story was a bit like the Born Free story. In the years just following the fame of the Born Free film about a lioness born wild and raised tame, then released successfully, another tame lion named Christian had been introduced into the wild using a careful program since that particular lion had descended from five generations of European zoo animals. In Teddy’s case it was very gradual since the Fort was within walking distance of his natural habitat and he was allowed to roam at large and establish his new social status at his own pace. It’s an inspiring story of intrepid men working in arduous conditions who took time to have a very large mascot that ended up enriching their lives