By Camilo Smith
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By Sean Pendergast
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There were deep rumbling sounds outside, as though from the depths of a cave. Do you want to see her? Paula Tholen asked.
She opened her back door, and there in the center of a tall chainlink cage was a genuine African black-maned lioness. Lying behind the mobile home, she looked as comfortable as lions ever seem in the films, lying in the veldt.
"Put your hand up, and she'll lick it," said Paula. "Just be sure to lay it flat. She gets scared of strangers sometimes, and I'm afraid someday, she'll grab one and pull."
The lion saw the hand but did not lick it. Instead, she crashed snarling into the side of the cage. Paula laughed.
"Oh, she won't get you!" Paula said.
Which is basically what she and her husband, Fred, have been trying to tell their neighbors for months now. Get that thing out of Manvel, their neighbors tell them, and Paula and Fred are fighting to keep their baby.
Inside, at her kitchen table, the legs of it all chewed up, Paula flipped through the "brag book" that she takes with her everywhere. Look, she said, pointing to a photo, here's the lion about a year ago with a pacifier. "And these are her giving me a kiss. She still does that, 'cept it's a lot bigger now." And Paula pointed to a photo in which the 150-pound lion was sitting on her lap, apparently taking a bite of her skull.
"She's not my biological child, but she is my child," Paula said. "I've pulled her teeth and wiped her little butt. I hate to say this, but my love for her is stronger than it ever was for my daughters. They know it. They're jealous."
One of these days, Manvel is going to be a hell of a bedroom community, the mayor believes. Before that happens, though, they'll have to build houses in Manvel, and before that happens, the city will have to provide water and sewer services. Manvel is just beginning to work on that.
It remains a scattering of settlers, 3,800 people on 29 square miles, little mobile homes on the prairie a half-hour's drive south of Houston. Manvel is a peaceful place not because the people are any better there, but because there are so few of them. People come to Manvel because they want to be left alone, one resident said, and this is why Fred and Paula Tholen came here last July, and probably it is why everyone was watching when they did.
When she gave directions, Paula Tholen said their mobile home would be the only one on Brier Crest with a For Sale sign out front. A stocky woman, 36 years old, she answered the door in her paramedic's uniform, the front of which was stained.
"Please excuse my clothes," she said. "I had a guy get sick on me. I think it was spaghetti."
Then she sat down. Her husband arrived a moment later from the refinery, a big, earnest man who began ranting about how unfair this whole thing was. Paula told him he was interrupting, and she began at the beginning.
"I was one of these kids who turned over rocks and never stopped," she explained.
In Texas City, she was the kind of kid who snatched up snakes without knowing what kind of snakes they were. They were never poisonous. Once, she even grabbed a porcupine without a puncture. She was lucky. "If I could catch it," she explained, "it was mine."
Paula was 15 and Fred was 18 when they married. Paula soon had two babies and a vast collection of snakes, and before coming inside, Fred would always peep in the window to ensure all the reptiles were safely in their cages. Quite often, they weren't. Paula would have to go looking for them, she recalled, "and sure enough, every time I'd find them under the baby getting warm."
They were Burmese pythons, but they were well-fed, she said, and no threat to her daughters. The children were simply more creatures in a teeming zoo. Over the years, as the children grew, the house in Texas City became a home to tarantulas and scorpions, iguanas, monitor lizards and giant frogs. Some people need people contact, said Paula, but she's always preferred the company of animals.
"I could go on Gilligan's Island and be perfectly happy," she said.
It was about a year ago, after her daughters had moved out, that Paula began thinking maybe she had room in her zoo for the king of the jungle. What do you want for Christmas? Fred asked her. "I know you been wanting a tanning bed."
"Yes," she answered, "but I also want a lion."
Fred wasn't surprised. A lion seemed to him the natural progression in beast ownership, "like starting out with a Volkswagen, and in 15 years, you get a Lexus." Others have bought lions as a symbol of toughness, the progression, say, from a pit bull or a rottweiler. But for Paula, owning a lion would be the ultimate expression of her wild personality, a symbol of her spiritual oneness with the animal world.