The story of Frasier the lion might have ended gruesomely. At the age of 19—the human equivalent of 75—and no longer of use to the Mexican circus that owned him, he faced a preemptive death. But fate twisted kindly for the aging lion. In 1972, he ended up south of Los Angeles at Lion Country Safari, along with a group of other wild cats that had been sent north for a new life.
From the way LIFE Magazine described him, the staff at Lion Country likely expected Frasier to live out his days in a lazy retirement. “He is underweight and splay-footed,” the editors wrote. “His fur resembles an old moth-balled coat, and he sleeps 19 hours a day. The muscles in his tongue are so shot that it unreels from his mouth like a slobbery red carpet.”
But, as LIFE interjected, “appearances aren’t everything.” Frasier was quickly placed on a special diet replete with vitamins, and he began to put on some weight. Much to his handlers’ surprise, he then became a hit with the lionesses. Within one day of meeting him, the same lionesses that refused to mate with several young guns “were sprawled protectively around Frasier,” bringing him choice meats at mealtime and waiting to eat until he was finished. Seven weeks later, they were all pregnant. Within 16 months, he had fathered 33 cubs.
LIFE called him “the country’s reigning sex simba.” One observer noted that he was “the first x-rated zoo attraction in history.” Frasier fan clubs sprung up, sending the lion more than 1,500 letters each month and purchasing t-shirts and bumper stickers emblazoned with his face.
Frasier’s virility was not entirely unusual for a lion, and its continuation into old age may be explained, at least in part, by a life in the circus, where there were no other lions to compete with. When Frasier died of pneumonia in July, 1972, members of the Scottish Fraser clan performed traditional funeral rites, donning kilts and playing dirges on the bagpipes. He was buried beneath a cross on the grounds of Lion Country.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.