What do you give a country in mourning for a beloved politician?
Well, if it was former Prime Minister Richard Seddon, who had just died, then apparently you get a lion.
Wellington was gifted the young lion in 1906, shortly after Seddon’s death and the animal - called King Dick after the nickname often used for Seddon - became the basis for Wellington Zoo.
The gift had coincided with a petition by Wellington residents for a zoo to be opened. The zoo was opened under the control of the Wellington City Council (it became a charity in 2003).
King Dick wasn’t by himself for long - by 1912 there were over 500 animals - including llamas, emus and kangaroos and has since housed everything from elephants to hedgehogs.
Quite a number of animals were gifted to the new zoo - The Duke of Bedford gave two axis deer and six tahrs and the Post Office gave it four storks (presumably retired from delivering new-borns).
King Dick himself came from Captain Frank Turner of the travelling Bostock and Wombwell circus.
With the zoo open in Newtown, crowds came to see him but as he grew so did some disquiet.
He was getting very big and the cage he was kept in seemed far too small.
While King Dick was quite tame, concerns were raised in letters to the newspapers wondering if he was lonely.
Indeed one letter suggested a female companion should be found for him, they should be “married” and have the run of Newtown Park.
So they did (well, not the run of the park thing!) - a female lion was leased from a circus but she turned out not to be a good match and was exchanged for another, called Queen Mary, and she and King Dick did have offspring.
She wasn’t, however, supposed to be a permanent fixture and when there was worry that she would be sent back to the circus an appeal went up for money to ‘save’ her. And it was found.
King Dick was incredibly popular and remained so all his life. It was in 1921 that he became ill in old age. Eventually losing the use of his hindlegs, the zoo made the sad decision to put him down.
Normally we tell you where our subject is buried, but in this case he is still above ground. King Dick was taxidermied and is on display at the Wellington Museum on Queen’s Wharf. However, he is not alone - in 2013 he was joined by another lion gifted by the zoo - Rusty.
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