End of the Lion
updated 10/03/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 10/03/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Now, some 20 years after Phifer's death at the age of 76, Leo's slumber is in danger of being disturbed. The property on which he is buried, owned by Phifer's 78-year-old sister-in-law Alma McCutcheon, is up for sale. Locals fear that developers could buy it and plow Leo's grave under to build a subdivision. "Leo the Lion is one of the most famous animals that ever lived," argues local chamber of commerce president Joe DuPont, 45, who as a boy visited Phifer's Animal Farm, which was also home to Tarzan's chimp Cheetah, now buried next to Leo. "He's a part of American history that could disappear if nothing is done."
It has become the mission of DuPont—and most of his neighbors—to see that something is done. Specifically, they are trying to raise $275,000 to buy the property and turn it into a memorial park. DuPont first appealed to MGM for help but was turned down ("After careful consideration..." company spokesperson Anne H. Corley wrote him in a letter). Now neighbors are scrambling for nickels and dimes. To stir up interest, a restaurant is serving King Burgers and Leo Subs, and the local historical society is lobbying the U.S. Postal Service for a commemorative stamp of Leo.
If the money can't be raised, the archaeology department at nearby Rutgers University has offered to exhume Leo's remains and move them to a park in Stirling, which is part of the same township. But mayor Spiro Koutsogiannis, for one, isn't happy about that prospect. In life, Leo, who was brought to America by Phifer during World War I, survived train wrecks, a Mississippi flood, a California earthquake and a plane crash in Arizona during various promotional tours. Now, says Koutsogiannis, in a sentiment echoed by Gillette's townsfolk, "I strongly support leaving Leo right where he is. He deserves to rest in peace."