Lion Country’s new owner plans to expand conservation, education at zoo

The founder of a Connecticut-based wildlife center, who also has ties to Wellington’s equestrian community, plans to buy Lion Country Safari in western Palm Beach County in a deal that is expected to be finalized during the third quarter of the year.

Marcella Leone, founder and director of the nonprofit Leo Zoological Conservation Center in Greenwich, Conn., has “agreed to purchase America’s first cage-less zoo,” Lion Country said Tuesday in a news release announcing the impending sale.

VIDEO: Lion Country Safari Exhibits: Extinct oryx thrive at the park

Leone’s husband, Peter, won a silver medal for show-jumping at the 1996 Summer Olympics and is part of Wellington’s equestrian scene. The couple also owns and operates Lionshare Farms, an equestrian facility on 100 acres in Greenwich.

“Since 1967, Lion Country Safari has been a leader in animal conservation and display,” the park said in the news release. “While continuing to build on this foundation, Leone will significantly expand upon the park’s conservation and education programs. There are plans to bring many new and exciting species to Palm Beach County.”

RELATED: Is Lion Country being sold?

Reached by phone Tuesday, Leone said she plans to continue operating the for-profit safari, including its amusement park, alongside her nonprofit zoological center.

“Our plan is to expand upon the foundation that is created,” Leone said. “I have a true love for that place and for animals. I just want to continue to improve it and expand on what they are already doing.”

Among the species that she plans to bring to the park: a cheetah and a colony of African penguins.

“My interests are in the preservation of our natural world, and just making sure that Lion Country can be a successful entity,” she said.

Leone, an heiress to the Liberty Travel empire, said she travels to Wellington during the winter equestrian season — a trip she’s made for the past three decades. During that time, she’s watched Lion Country grow.

Two years ago, her Connecticut-based wildlife center partnered with Lion Country on an educational program about cheetahs. As part of the program, a cheetah that was bred at the Leo Zoological Conservation Center was brought to Lion Country for the winter.

“It really is a wonderful place,” she said.

Lion Country’s employees were reportedly told about the sale on Monday.

RELATED: Lion Country named one of the world’s “Top 10 Savanna Exhibits”

Lion Country, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is one of the county’s top tourism attractions. The park is home to more than 900 animals. It also features five rides and a water sprayground.

But it’s the drive-thru safari — with 5 miles of road — allowing visitors to get close to animals such as lions, rhinos, giraffes and ostriches that has made it popular and prestigious.

Earlier this month, Lion Country Safari was named one the best “Savanna Exhibits” in the world, according to a ranking released by Zoo Nation.

The list features the top 10 places in the world to view African wildlife outside of Africa. Lion Country took the 10th spot on Zoo Nation’s list — a ranking it is using to help draw out-of-town visitors to its drive-thru zoo.

The ranking placed Lion Country among A-list attractions, including the top-rated African Plains exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.

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