Rare white lion debuts at Smoky Mountain Opry

Jul. 10, 2013 @ 11:23 PM

The Smoky Mountain Opry welcomed a new performer to its cast on Tuesday.

Tsimba-Vaati, one of only 300 white lions in existence, has been added to the Best of Broadway segment during the Opry's "Circle of Life" performance.

Corky Miller, exotic animal specialist for the Smoky Mountain Opry, said that although Tuesday's matinee was Tsimba-Vaati's first live performance, she has been working with him for six weeks, gradually introducing him to life as a performer.

"He's very comfortable on stage, and that lets me know I've done something right," Miller said.

Tsimba-Vaati, who is 7 years old and weighs approximately 500 pounds, came to the Opry from a small private zoo in the northern United States. Miller said that the facility is nice, but she maintains that it is overcrowded.

"Each animal at Smoky Mountain Opry comes from a different place and different circumstances, but they have all come to a better life," Miller said. "Many people get exotic animals and they think it's really cool, but they quickly realize they don't have the funds to care for such a large animal."

Miller explained that Tsimba-Vaati was born in captivity and would face an uncertain future if released in the wild.

While the show will continue to feature a white Arabian horse, a Bengal tiger, a white tiger, and two serval cats, Jim Hedrick, senior vice-president and co-owner of the Fee/Hedrick entertainment group, said the addition of the white lion adds a new element.

"What do I think of the white lion?" he said. "Are you kidding me? He's only one of 300 in the world. Not only that, but he's beautiful, majestic, and brings lots of oohs and aahs from the audience."

President and co-owner David Fee said, "Our new white lion is among the rarest and most treasured animals in the world. He is a creature of the most extraordinary kind, and we are thrilled to have him join our show."

Miller noted that the white lion is neither an albino nor a precise species, but rather a genetic rarity found only in the Timvabati region of Africa, where indigenous people believe in a spiritual connection with the animal. The appearance of a white lion in the region is thought to prophesy that goodness will follow.

When he is not on stage, Tsimba Vaati spends his time in large quarters backstage, and space has been rented locally at a private zoo. Robert Kalino, general manager of Smoky Mountain Opry, said plans are underway for the construction of an on-site animal habitat.

"The habitat will have falls and a cave," Miller said. "It's similar to the setup of a zoo and just as big. The cats only work in the show about 10 minutes a day, so they are free to play and be cats the rest of the time."

"It's going to make the dancers jealous because their dressing rooms aren't as nice," joked Kalino.

The Smoky Mountain Opry offers an eclectic lineup this summer, including specialty acts and musical numbers featuring genres from Broadway to gospel to classic country. The new variety show features a former member of the Russian National Theater Dance Group, a former Rockette, and a Las Vegas silk aerialist, juggler and magician.

The Fee/Hedrick entertainment group also produces and operates the Comedy Barn, he Hatfield and McCoy Dinner show, the Bob Nelson Show and the Blackwoods Morning Variety Show.

jfrye@themountainpress.com