Independence, Kansas - For decades, a quartet of larger-than-life concrete lion statues have stood as sentries at the main entrances of historic Riverside Park and Ralph Mitchell Zoo in small-town Independence, Kansas. The iconic lions serve as the mascot of the beloved park and zoo, which is a keystone of community pride and widely revered in the region for its well-maintained grounds, free zoo with everything from Siberian bears to free-roaming peacocks, to an operating miniature train and antique carousel that children and families can enjoy for mere pennies. Especially in the spring and summer months, the property is abuzz, with visitors flocking to the playgrounds, amusement rides, picnic shelters, water park and, of course, the zoo exhibits.
The zoo, in fact, earned a significant place in world history, as its “Monkey Island” was the birthplace of Miss Able, a rhesus monkey who became the first monkey to survive a space flight (in 1959) and helped pave the way for human space exploration. Miss Able’s contribution was acknowledged with a long-running exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
With such a reputation, it’s no wonder locals are fiercely protective of this important community asset and were riled by a recent controversy involving those iconic lion statues.
Every year on the last Saturday of the month, the community observes LOVE Independence Day, a day dedicated to intentional community wide acts of kindness. Families, churches, civic groups, businesses, individuals and organizations come together to rehab houses, plant flower gardens, visit nursing homes, pick up litter and volunteer their time in countless other ways to express community pride and make someone else’s day a little brighter. On this year’s LOVE Independence Day last Saturday, April 30, members of a local organization – SEK Delta Waterfowl, a non-profit waterfowl conservation group – volunteered to repaint the park entrance lion statues, which for years had sported a questionable shade dubbed “circus-peanut orange.” With paint and supplies provided by the park, the volunteers covered all four animals, mane to tail, in a fresh new coat of what was supposed to be a lion-ish shade of gold. In reality, due to a little color mix-up at the local paint store, the lions came out, well, a somewhat shocking, nearly neon shade of yellow – “Safety Yellow” to be exact, like the color of vests worn by road workers.
Before the paint was even dry, opinions began to fly on the park’s Facebook page, @RiversideParkandRalphMitchellZoo. Comments have ranged from, “Hideous!” “Yuck!” and “They look like lemons in the shape of lions,” to “Looks like summer and sunshine,” “Really catches the eye,” and “Has a lot of pop!” Many expressed their appreciation for the volunteers who painted the lions, even if they didn’t like the color. The painters themselves made this clever post, “Fun was had and now you can see the lions from space.”
Park staff, though somewhat partial to the vibrant new shade, acknowledged the color mistake and vowed to repaint the statues a more appropriate lion color right away. But the social media debate continued to rage, and instead of repainting immediately, the City of Independence and park staff decided to have a little fun with the whole ordeal – dubbed hashtag #LionGate - and put the issue up for a real community vote via the City’s website, with a choice between “Nearly Neon Poppin’ Yellow” and “Play-it-Safe Mellow Yellow.”
#LionGate is sweeping the community and beyond. Humorous posts have sparked positive community engagement like few other issues in recent history. In one post, the park even tagged the International Space Station – “Hey, Astronauts, can you really see our lions from space?” - which prompted a reply from former space station commander Leroy Chiao, who actually has visited Independence and commented about how much he enjoyed the park, zoo and community. The park’s post also drew the connection between the astronauts and the history of Miss Able in space and offered the astronauts a “You’re welcome!” for the monkey’s contribution to their future careers.
In other promotion, electronic marquees around town are plugging #LionGate and encouraging votes. To date, more than 1,700 votes (in a community of 8,500 residents) have been cast, not counting the hundreds of Facebook comments.
Reaching beyond the color debate, the discussion has prompted many on Facebook to share their childhood memories of the park and zoo, growing up in Independence, and even photos of the lions from as far back as the 1960s. The debate is all in good fun, says City Manager Kelly Passauer, and is shining a new light on the community’s gem.
“It’s great to see such passion from our citizens about our wonderful park and zoo,” Passauer said. “And with so much unrest and bad news in the world, it’s fun to lighten the mood a bit with a friendly community debate.”
As one Facebook commenter summed it up, “If that’s all the worries in the world, we’re doing good. LOL. It’s just a color.”