CRESTVIEW – The Emerald Coast Zoo’s Levi the lion is 14 years old, double the life expectancy of a lion in the wild.
But this enduring king of the jungle needs a much larger enclosure, zoo co-owner Rick de Ridder said Saturday. He wants the lion’s new home to have a hill, atop which Levi can stand like royalty.
“A lion’s roar can be heard 7 miles away. Imagine him up there,” de Ridder said while picturing Levi on high ground.
A new home for Levi is one of several major projects de Ridder has planned for the zoo, which celebrated its 30th anniversary on Saturday. Two years ago, he and his family purchased the nonprofit zoo, which initially opened as the Sasquatch Zoo.
The zoo’s anniversary party featured discounted admissions, a bouncy house, a food truck, animal encounters, sightings of Sasquatch and guest of honor Debbie Mattox, who started the Sasquatch Zoo in 1989.
“It’s always been my passion,” Mattox said of the zoo while visiting Levi, who she raised as a cub. “Levi was born here.”
His father used to live at the zoo and made it to age 24, she said. During the first several months of his life, Levi stayed in the house that Mattox still lives in next to the zoo.
On Saturday, she petted him through a chain-link fence, causing him to purr loudly.
“There’s nothing like the love of a lion,” Mattox said. “He can pick me out in a crowd of 200 people.”
Before Levi and two tigers were fed big chunks of meat in front of a large audience, de Ridder gave Mattox an award for her animal conservation work.
“You have created a legacy,” he told her. “You are the queen of the Emerald Coast Zoo.”
After being asked why she had named it the Sasquatch Zoo, Mattox said, “I have no idea,” and then chuckled.
She said the first animal at the Sasquatch Zoo was a spider monkey named Baby Sarah. On Saturday, she chatted with friends while cradling a patas monkey that was wearing a diaper and a striped shirt.
Mattox ran the zoo until 2013. From then until the de Ridders bought it in 2017, it was operated by the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge and was known as the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge Zoological Park.
The de Ridder family moved from Cocoa Beach to begin their zoo adventure together. They live on the zoo property.
“When we bought this place, we had $3,000 in the bank,” de Ridder said. “We built it up with hard work and with God.”
The 10-acre zoo, located about 7 miles east of Crestview off U.S. Highway 90, has more than 100 animals. In addition to a larger enclosure for Levi, de Ridder wants to provide new and/or larger homes for the tigers, wolves and other creatures and build a splash pad for visitors.
As of Saturday, the zoo’s GoFundMe page had raised $11,000 of the $25,000 needed for Levi’s new home.
“We have big dreams,” de Ridder said. “We’re not slowing down.”