by John Hamilton
Over the years, you might have heard the strangest of rumors that someone in Colonial Williamsburg actually owned a pet lion, and even walked him on a leash throughout the neighborhoods. Well, this author is not li-on to you, as Friday, September 4th, 2020 marks the 55th Anniversary of the famous pet’s tragic demise in the year of 1965.
Simba the Lion indeed lived with his owner in a quaint but unique-looking stone house near the corner of Henry Street and Scotland Street. If you visit the charming town or look it up on Google Maps, you will see that particular site is located pretty close to Merchant’s Square and the historic district. The owner was one Herman G. Dail, who was self-employed and found plenty of local work as a painter. By the way, in a bit of a bizarre twist, Simba lived in the home in which famous artist Georgia O’Keeffe lived previously, as her father built it when he was in the concrete business.
Many of the 2020 Facebook accounts from longtime Colonial Williamsburg residents say they adoringly remember Simba best when he rode in the family station wagon to High’s Ice Cream for a treat, as Mrs. Dail worked at the parlor. One woman even fondly recounted how she was allowed to feed the lion cub when she was four years old. Another man mentioned he was at Woolworth’s (Google it, millennials) with his grandmother when he saw Simba in the vehicle. The same man saw Simba going for a walk while he attended the Matthew Whaley Elementary School. That must have been quite a site for the schoolchildren on that day! Another woman mentioned she lived right across the street from Simba’s house, which must have made for interesting trips to the mailbox and dinnertime discussions.
In one old photo of Simba, what did the sign on the vehicle window say? It said “Positively Do Not Touch Or Tease”, which seems like good advice. Another popular nostalgic photo shows Simba eagerly drinking milk from a baby bottle. Simba even spent a short stint at the Norfolk Zoo, but when he stopped eating he was promptly returned to the Dail family home.
The heartbreaking end came on Saturday of the Labor Day Weekend in 1965. It was September 4th, and according to archives from The College of William & Mary, twenty-month-old Simba was being walked on his chain leash. At this point in his life, Simba already weighed about 300 pounds and was three-quarters of the size of the mother lion. It was originally reported that Simba broke loose and”mauled” his owner, but the lack of serious injuries to Mr. Dail has led people to speculate that statement was quite the exaggeration. One man said there were so many gunshots around town that evening it sounded like the Maginot Line.
Now, the sad death of an animal, especially one as popular as Simba, can be a controversial subject. Many locals say Simba wouldn’t have harmed anyone and should have been saved, while other locals argue public safety was a pressing concern. First, we should duly note here that the modern tranquilizer dart for animals wasn’t invented until the 1950s, and it wasn’t researched in depth until the 1960s. Nevertheless, for whatever final reason it appears no known fair attempt to tranquilize or capture Simba was made. Sorrowfully, our popular pet was shot and killed by authorities, who were in a difficult position, somewhere in the darkness of the Williamsburg woods.
If you would like to see some photos of Simba the Lion, The College of William & Mary has them on file in the Thomas L. Williams Collection.
Rest in Peace, Simba. Although you were only on this Earth with us for less than two years, you touched the hearts of many residents in the Colonial Williamsburg region, and your wild leonine spirit will never be forgotten.
Photograph by Seth Fisher