What do you get for the victorious allied commander and British prime minister who has everything? A lion, apparently.
Rota, an African lion, was originally won in a bet by a London businessman. Once he outgrew his backyard cage, he was presented to Sir Winston Churchill to commemorate his victories in North Africa during World War II. Tame enough to let curious visitors reach in and touch him, Rota resided for a time in a cage outside of Churchill’s property, before finally being relocated to the London Zoo.
That wasn’t Rota’s last stop, however. It’s not exactly clear how the stuffed lion made his way to Florida, but travel over the ocean he did. He was first exhibited at the Lion Hotel in Saint Augustine, but too many visitors pulling at his fur led the owners to donate him to the avid collector, Otto C. Lightner.
Housed in what was originally the Alcazar Hotel built by Henry Morrison Flagler in 1888, the Lightner Museum showcases its original patron’s vast collection of pretty much anything and everything. It includes the second largest assemblage of American-made crystal in the world, a pipe organ-themed desk (which may have been used by Napoleon’s brother), Tiffany stained glass, Victorian-era scientific equipment, an Egyptian mummy, early automated music machines, and Rota, the lion who once belonged to Churchill.
Today Rota stands behind glass with his monstrous maw preserved in a permanent roar—or yawn, perhaps.
Know Before You Go
The Lightner Museum is in downtown St. Augustine, and is open 7 days a week, 9am to 5pm. Admission is $10 for adults, $6 for active military, $5 for students and young people 12-18, and under 12 are free (with an adult). Rota is on the first floor.