Wisconsin April 20, 2019
Most People Don’t Know The Bizarre Story Behind This One Wisconsin Library
The Central Library building in downtown Milwaukee is a gorgeous, ornate Neo-renaissance structure that actually used to house both the main branch of the library and the city’s public museum. A full block long, this building features hand-laid marble mosaic tile floors and a large rotunda. It’s a truly beautiful and impressive building that’s worth touring just for the architecture alone. That’s what makes this story so unusual. It’s about the furthest place away from where you would expect to find a live lion. And yet, in the late 1920s, a real lion named Simba called it home.
This beautiful, ornate building was built in 1895 and though it now is just home to the Central Library of the Milwaukee County library system, at the time it was built, it was home to both the library and the museum. The U-shape was meant to give a central entrance but separate quarters for the two different groups using the building.
In 1928, a group from both the library and museum made a trip to Africa. It was meant to be a cultural expedition where they learned about the area they visited and brought back items for the museum. They were not expecting a local Maasai tribe to give them an orphaned lion cub. This is where the story becomes head-scratching. The group from Milwaukee quickly grew attached and had the lion shipped home. It's a bit unfathomable in this day and age to think of keeping a lion, but apparently it wasn't a question in 1928.
Though we're all very familiar with the name "Simba" now because of a certain animated movie, it's not unusual that this little guy was given the name by the tribe who gifted him. "Simba" in Swahili simply means lion. So long before "Hakuna Matata," Milwaukee had their very own Simba. He was put on public display and folks were able to pet him. Thousands of folks came to see the lion and he was incredibly overwhelmed. After that initial three-day viewing, he wasn't put in that situation again and instead was just kept inside the library/museum building.
He was actually kept here, in a room that still exists. It was the taxidermy room back then and it's where Simba found a home. During the day, Simba would be relocated to an enclosure on the roof of the building so the people who worked there could get their jobs done. The more you hear of this story, the more ridiculous it gets. It's crazy to think that everyone was very ok with keeping a lion and no one thought it was that odd. And even when it became a nuisance or interrupted their work, they just built a cage on the roof. The lengths that everyone went to accommodate having a lion in a place he had no business being is frankly alarming.
The room is located off a long hallway and the story goes that this long stretch is where Simba would roam and get exercise. Museum employees would roll a ball back and forth and he would chase it. Unfortunately, that wooden ball that he loved so much would also be the reason he was finally removed from the library and museum. Chewing on the wooden ball caused him to get a tooth abscess and dental issues that no one in Milwaukee could take care of. Simba was transferred to the Washington Park Zoo where he received the care he needed. He eventually died there in 1943 at the age of 14.
That story on its own is outrageous, but it actually gets better. Generations of Wisconsinites have enjoyed visits to the Milwaukee Public Museum (now in its own building) to see the amazingly life-like vignettes of stuffed animals. And most of us had absolutely no idea that the male lion in this African savannah scene is actually Simba - the lion who used to have free rein of the building up the road. We rarely think of how these taxidermied animals find their way to a museum in a Midwest city, and we certainly wouldn't have dreamed that this particular lion's background was so tied to Milwaukee.
The next time you're wandering the ornate and gorgeous halls of the Central Library building, take a moment to imagine the fact that a lion could have roamed in the same place. It's farcical to even suggest, and yet it happened. As unlikely as it seems, Milwaukee has a fascinating lion story all its own.
Have you heard about this amazing story before? Do you know any more details? Let us know in the comments!
If you’d like to get up close and personal with some exotic animals,
check out this sanctuary right here in Wisconsin.