Loose in Lawrence: The Story of the Otago Museum’s Lions

Taking pride of place on the central mezzanine in the Animal Attic, the Lawrence Lions are one of the most well-loved displays at the Otago Museum.

Sultan and Sonia, the Museum’s famous Lawrence Lions, escaped from Carlos’ Circus on 30 March 1978. At the time, the travelling circus was entertaining a crowd of 400 people in Lawrence, Central Otago. After their cage was mistakenly left unbolted, Sultan and Sonia made their break for freedom just as the evening show began. In the chaos that followed, a six-year-old boy was scratched on the face by Sonia, the fleeing lioness.

On leaving the circus grounds, Sultan and Sonia wandered towards an adjacent field where a local rugby team was practising, before making their way back to the circus. Three-year-old Sultan, the male lion, tried to return to his cage but couldn’t get in. He was then shot by the local constable because of fears for public safety, a decision endorsed by the manager of Carlos’ Circus. Sonia was eventually corralled in a local resident’s garage. Unfortunately, she escaped through the back door before she could be captured and was later found in the hospital grounds. After two failed attempts to tranquilise her, she too was shot.

The lions were gifted to the Otago Museum by the owners of Carlos’ Circus. Taxidermy of these magnificent creatures was completed with the help of the Dunedin South Round Table Community Service Club who organised a public appeal to raise funds. The taxidermy process was undertaken in Christchurch by Terry Jacobs. During this process, the skins were carefully removed, tanned and fitted over specially made casts. Sultan and Sonia were then returned to the Museum and displayed in the foyer.

Today, the Lawrence Lions take centre stage at the heart of the Animal Attic. This Victorian-style ‘museum within the Museum’ is located on the top floor of the original Otago Museum building, which opened in 1877. The Animal Attic houses nearly 3,000 historical specimens, showcasing the diversity of the animal kingdom. The ordering of these specimens is based on taxonomy, which represents evolutionary relationships. Maintaining its traditional layout and ambiance, the Animal Attic is one of the most-loved galleries in the Museum and recently celebrated its 135th birthday. It was refreshed in 2012, with gentle improvements made, including the installation of Sultan and Sonia in their new feature case.

Discover a host of iconic and curious exhibits in Otago Museum’s Animal Attic – including an intriguing ‘rat king’, a massive Japanese spider crab and, of course, the magnificent Lawrence Lions.

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