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What's That Big Cat's Name?

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Recognize the lion featured in Citrin Law Firm’s new television commercial? It’s Simba, a 5-year-old African lion who lives at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo in Gulf Shores.

The black-maned male, weighing in at around 450 pounds, and Head Keeper Cyndi Johnson appeared along with personal injury attorney Andy Citrin in the ad. Although Simba — named after “The Lion King” character — has a generally sweet disposition, Johnson said she was nervous while filming scenes of the riled big cat.

Simba wasn’t acting, she said. He was exhibiting instinctual aggressive behavior. “Feeding time is a very dangerous time,” Johnson said. “They’re a totally different animal when there’s meat involved than when meat’s not involved.”

The highly aggressive behavior is instinctual, as the big cats have to be protective of their kills in the wild, Johnson said.

Once Simba is done with his meat and licks clean the place where the meat had been, he settles back to his normal self, she said.

The big cat’s response to being fed a bottle filled with Vitamin D milk is totally different. He doesn’t get worked up at all but rather becomes “sweet,” which allowed for the bottle-feeding scenes Simba and Johnson shot for the commercial.

Simba came to Gulf Shores from Chestatee Wildlife Preserve & Zoo in Dahlonega, Ga., Johnson said. “I got him when he was 3 months, and I hand-reared him,” she said.

He is one-quarter Barbary lion, a black-maned subspecies of African lion that had been abundant in northern Africa, Johnson said. The largest animals of the species, Barbaries were the lions the Romans used to fight the gladiators and persecute the early Christians, she said.

Sadly, the subspecies has become extinct in the wild, Johnson said. However, the zoo is hopeful that eventually Simba and his cagemate, C.C., can produce a litter with even more Barbary blood.

C.C. was named in honor of beloved former employee Cathleen Curley, affectionately called “Miss Kitty” because she loved big cats, Johnson said. Miss Kitty had died shortly before the female African lion — who has twice the Barbary ancestry as Simba — came to the zoo as a cub from Chestatee Wildlife Preserve & Zoo, she said.

While she had never before appeared in an ad, Johnson said she wasn’t a television novice. Following Hurricane Ivan, she appeared in Animal Planet’s “The Little Zoo That Could” — she was with the monkey — as well as in hurricane-related coverage on the National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel and Weather Channel’s Storm Stories.