published Saturday, July 13th, 2013

Rare white lion joins Smoky Mountain Opry

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — A rare white lion now has a home in the Smoky Mountains.

Tsimba-Vaati — an unusual beast and one of only about 300 white lions in the world — has been added to the Best of Broadway segment during the Smoky Mountain Opry’s “Circle of Life” performance.

The Smoky Mountain Opry’s exotic animal specialist, Corky Miller, told The Mountain Press that Tsimba-Vaati has been working on becoming a performer for about six weeks and is very comfortable on stage.

The Opry obtained the lion from a small private zoo in the northern United States. All Miller would say is Tsimba-Vaati’s current home is better than her prior circumstances.

Miller said the lion, who is 7 years old and weighs approximately 500 pounds, was born in captivity and would face an uncertain future if released in the wild.

“Many people get exotic animals and they think it’s really cool, but they quickly realize they don’t have the funds to care for such a large animal,” Miller said.

The show will continue to feature a white Arabian horse, a Bengal tiger, a white tiger, and two serval cats. But Jim Hedrick, senior vice president and co-owner of the Fee/Hedrick entertainment group, said the addition of the white lion adds a new element.

“What do I think of the white lion?” he said. “Are you kidding me? He’s only one of 300 in the world. Not only that, but he’s beautiful, majestic, and brings lots of ‘oohs and aahs’ from the audience.”

Miller noted that the white lion is neither an albino nor a precise species, but rather a genetic rarity found only in the Timvabati region of Africa, where indigenous people believe in a spiritual connection with the animal. The appearance of a white lion in the region is thought to prophesy that goodness will follow.

When he is not on stage, Tsimba-Vaati spends his time in large quarters backstage, and space has been rented locally at a private zoo.

Robert Kalino, general manager of Smoky Mountain Opry, said plans are underway for the construction of an on-site animal habitat.

“The habitat will have falls and a cave,” Miller said. “It’s similar to the setup of a zoo and just as big. The cats only work in the show about 10 minutes a day, so they are free to play and be cats the rest of the time,” Kalino said. “It’s going to make the dancers jealous because their dressing rooms aren’t as nice.”

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