There are dog people and there are cat people, and then there is Pauline Bokkon.
After moving with her late husband, Julius Bokkon, to Chesterfield from West Virginia in1951, they built a house in what is now the Meadowbrook school district. With only a tenth-grade education she had to find a source of income, she said.
“I raised dogs for living because I didn’t know any trade,” said Bokkon, 85. “Talking about hard work …”
She started that career choice in 1958, but in 1966 she suddenly had the urge for a cat, a big cat, when she noticed a peculiar ad while scouting other competition in the newspaper.
“When I was reading the paper that day, because every Sunday I’d read the classifieds to see who I was in competition with, I saw one for a lion,” she said. “I said ‘I’d love to see a baby lion, I’d love to have one.’”
Afraid that buying the lion would invite a financial burden, Bokkon realized that the newly established Meadowbrook High School had a “monarch”, or a lion, for their mascot.
Her daughter, Linda, had just started attending Meadowbrook and was appointed captain of the cheerleading squad. Bokkon then had an idea.
“I said, ‘Linda, ask Mr. Moore, if we bought that lion and if I kept it, would he let it be the mascot,’” she said. “He said the school could not buy something like that…I said, ‘Well, why can’t the cheerleaders raise the money to get?’”
The squad then raised enough money to pay for the financing of the lion and the upkeep for it, throwing dances and asking for money at pep rallies and other sporting events.
Lenora Mitchell, who attended Meadowbrook from 1963-1966, were cheerleading friends with Bokkon’s daughters, Linda and Brenda, and remembers the school hosting the lion for various events during her tenth, eleventh and twelfth-grade school years.
“I think it really boosted the moral of the students. Even if the team was doing badly, the kids seemed to really enjoy having the lion there,” said Mitchell, now in her 21st year at Meadowbrook, working as the school’s guidance tech/ registrar. “We had wonderful attendance at the games because the kids wanted to come see what the lion was up to.”
The school held a pep rally every Friday and according to Mitchell it was a “big deal” for the lion to march in to the gym during those times. It “put Meadowbrook on the map,” she said; according to Mitchell, the Bokkon family was able to keep and raise the lion by the help of students putting their change in a massive jar, the money collected by the Meadowbrook cheerleading squad at the time.
“It’s like they were all a part of raising him, so it was sort of like a school-wide thing; it just wasn’t a singled-out few. The whole school was involved,” said Mitchell.
The Bokkon family had kept the lion at their house the entire time, but once it grew too large to domesticate they knew that departing from it was inevitable. They had options, but none provided them with the kind of comfort the sought.
“So many people at away games would come to the games just to see the lion and bring their kids to see it. They couldn’t imagine him lying out there on the grass near the football field,” said Bokkon. “And we’d just lay his blanket on the ground; he’d just lie there and watch the game. Oh they loved it. And at half time, everybody would bring their team over to see him and the cheerleaders would have a fit over him.”
But as the lion grew, its size became an issue for the Bokkon household and a change was needed. Bokkon faced a difficult decision. “I got to the point that I was going to have to put him to sleep because no one would take him,” said Bokkon. “I was determined not to sell him to one of those road-side places.”
She then saw an article for a compound where lions in the movie “Born Free” were kept and trained, a place “where they were treated like kings,” said Bokkon. “I said, ‘Oh God, if I only knew where this compound was I could write them.’”
She then wrote a letter with clippings to Hollywood, California, to the producers of the movie, adding that she would rather just give it to them than have to put it to sleep. Weeks went on before she got word from them.
Not long after the compound contacted the family did the family lion have to leave.
“It was something I did because I wanted to see what I could do with it. It was a challenge to have it in my house; it wouldn’t have been a challenge to me if it were in a cage. It wouldn’t have been anything, but I loved it.”
Amazed at the lion’s level of domestication, the compound worked out a deal with Bokkon that she would take another baby lion to raise and return it once it reached the domesticated level as the first.
For the next nine years, Bokkon raised the lions, having eight more before she ceased from hosting them in 1976.
Over the years, her work with the lions took her places she had never before seen. Numerous times she was interviewed with her lion on a local television, “The Sailor Bob Show”, and on the nationally-televised “What’s my line?”Plus, one of lions was filmed in the educational video “Big Cat, Little Cat.” Over the years, Bokkon has had a number of newspaper articles written about her story with the lion. She has also written and published three books, illustrating her biographical accounts: Footprints in the Coal Dust; What’s My Lion?; and Sugarplum and Chico: The Civilized Lions.
At this time, Bokkon passes the time by telling stories of her years with lions and still to do this day keeps up with Meadowbrook sports.