Going on safari for mascots

BAHS takes pride in purrrrrfect Lions' den

Feline pair have taken up residence in school lobby for nearly decade
By Mark Haskell | Apr 05, 2019
Photo by: Mark Haskell Lions in the Belfast Area High School lobby.

Belfast — At Belfast Area High School — home of the Lions — a couple, in particular, have settled into their new glass den nicely and have greeted visitors, with a steadfast snarl and imaginary growl, in the building's front lobby for nearly a decade.

Unlike most schools, where an athletic mascot may be splashed on the wall in a mural or with tapestries or posters, BAHS has a pair of as-authentic-as-they-come lions on display in a ceiling-high, enclosed glass case in the lobby next to the main office.

And, seemingly, the big cats are ready to pounce at a moment’s notice.

This is the ninth year the two Lions, a male and female, have been showcased at BAHS, but the story of how those Lions came to make it to Waldo County in 2010 is even more astonishing than the kings of the jungles or prides of the African Savanna themselves.

And the story begins with former BAHS art teacher Chuck Hamm, who, through former administrative assistant Marcia Ames, learned that the possibility of obtaining the animals lied only a few miles south in Newport at Nokomis Regional High School.

While the origin of the animals is unclear, the two Lions were hunted and, after being taxidermied, became exhibits at the Smithsonian Museum.

But, an apparent change in policy at the world-renowned museum — for which there are nearly 20, with many located in Washington, D.C. — set the wheels in motion for the duo to make their way north to the Pine Tree State.

“The Smithsonian was getting rid of all these animals because they were from hunts,” said Hamm, who worked in the art department at BAHS for 26 years and is now the head of schools at Islesboro Central School. “Anything they kept either died of natural causes or were humanely euthanized. But they wanted to change their philosophy and get rid of anything that was hunted.”

And, Nokomis happened to have in its curriculum, of all things, a taxidermy class, taught by then teacher Howard Whitten.

And so, Whitten went to the Smithsonian Museum with a tractor trailer and returned to Newport with several mounts for Nokomis students to repair.

“The students did a lot of repairs,” said Hamm. “The tail [on one of the lions] was broken and there was other damage as well.”

After Whitten’s class finished its work, they set about finding homes for the many repaired mounts.

They did not have to look far to find inquiring minds about the two Lions.

“He [Whitten] told me when I contacted him he’d got calls and emails from all over the world,” he said. “Everybody wanted these Lions in particular.”

However, Hamm was not just any art teacher looking for a new conversation piece for his school.

An avid photographer, Hamm had recently returned from a photo safari in Tanzania, where he had seen many Lions roam the countryside.

He sent a few of his photos to Whitten.

“I said, ‘We’re home of the Lions. And if you want somebody to really take care of these Lions and appreciate them, that would be us.’ And he called me up and said, ‘I decided you guys can have them.’ ”

Hamm said, at the time, the two Lions were valued at approximately $30,000 each.

“Initially they were on loan [for a year],” said Hamm. “Then Howard came and saw them in the glass and I think it was more of a gentleman’s agreement that he and the school would have first refusal if Belfast ever wanted to get rid of them.”

All things considered, it does not look as if the Lions will be looking for a new home anytime soon.

Hamm now has been on three photo safaris — two of which he has organized — and plans to go again “in another year or two.”

He added that he is “certainly against hunting Lions, so that created a moral dilemma” for him in how the Lions originally were obtained.

But, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities — such as getting authentic Lions for your school — do not happen every day.

“These Lions were already mounted and harvested in a way that was acceptable at the time when they were,” Hamm said. “If anything I just wanted to preserve them. I mean look at them. They’re pretty incredible.”

Lions in the Belfast Area High School lobby. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
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