CANEY — A rare white lion born last weekend at the Safari Zoological Park is offering visitors a once-in-a-lifetime sight.
But just how rare is the question on the minds of the owners of this nonprofit zoological park in the southeastern part of the state.
Although statistics are hard to come by, lion enthusiasts say there are only 25 to 30 white lions in the world, and most of them are in South Africa. The newest addition here comes from parents who are of Barbary lion ancestry, which is even more rare than the white lion.
Safari's owner, Tom Harvey, thinks his little bundle of joy might just be the only living white Barbary lioness.
"I can't emphasize enough how rare this is," he said. "It's like hatching a dinosaur egg or landing on the moon. I never dreamed we would have a white lion cub here."
The pure white lion cub was born Saturday afternoon to proud parents Samson and Sony. Although the two lions who are tan have produced many cubs, this is their first white cub, the product of a recessive gene in both parents.
It will take DNA tests to determine how pure the Barbary bloodline is for Samson and Sony, who bear the markings, weight and mane of the breed of lions that became nearly extinct in the wild in 1922.
Some experts say there are no more pure blood Barbary lions in the world. Others think they exist in captivity scattered around the world.
Harvey said he thinks his lions are at least "95 percent pure" Barbary. Wildlink International describes the Barbary lion as "the world's most distinctive predator. This is the lion that killed Christians and gladiators in Roman games, inspired medieval knights and became synonymous with courage."
Craig Packer, the director of the University of Minnesota Lion Research Center, said he didn't know of any white Barbary lioness alive anywhere in the world.
"Biologically, white lions are not all that terribly important because they are a mutation," he said. "They are quite beautiful to look at, I'm certain, and they are very popular with entertainers."
White lion enthusiasts keep track of the rare felines with Web sites that feature photographs and life updates about the animals whose lives can be tracked by their owners.
Two white cubs were born in Johannesburg, South Africa, last March, and the Cincinnati zoo has four white lions, although they have tawny markings as well.
Harvey is showering the cub, temporarily nicknamed "Princess," with care. She has been separated from her parents since birth.
"I'm not letting anyone else feed her," Harvey said. "We're doing tours all day and we're up all night with the baby. I'm a surrogate mom here. It's a rare and special opportunity for us."
The cub can be seen from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and from noon to 5 p.m. Sundays at the park, which is off old U.S. Highway 169.
Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for children and free for those 2 and younger. For information, call (620) 879-2885 or visit www.safaripark.org.
More than 100 animals live in the zoo, which is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.