PHELAN — Hearts were heavy at Forever Wild Exotic Animal Sanctuary on Wednesday, as staff and the community mourned the death of Wazu, a 24-year-old African lion.

“We will miss your nightly roars,” sanctuary staff wrote in an announcement on Facebook. “He will forever be in our hearts.”

The post was met with dozens of comments from visitors who’ve come to know and love the lion, who was a retired animal actor.

“He was a very special boy to a lot of people,” Forever Wild Co-Founder Chemaine Almquest told the Daily Press. “He was definitely filled with character. When you met him, he made a great impact on your life.”

Wazu entered Forever Wild, a Phelan nonprofit which hosts a variety of rescued exotic animals, in the summer of 2015, coming from a licensed facility that trained animals to be actors.

“He was already in his geriatric years, so they felt it would be nice for him to live out the rest of his days in a sanctuary,” Almquest said.

With that, Wazu came to live out his retirement by lounging in the shade and chatting with the other big cats at Forever Wild, no doubt bragging about his famous past.

As a young lion, Wazu starred in numerous National Geographic specials and Discovery Channel documentaries, Forever Wild staff said. His TV spots included a Lions vs. Colts Gatorade Super Bowl commercial with Peyton Manning.

“He lived well past what they’d normally live, not to mention in the wild, but even in sanctuary life, he lived a very long, long life,” Almquest said.

According to Forever Wild staff, at 24, Wazu was just a year behind the oldest lion on record. Toward the end, his arthritis and old age took a toll on his body.

“Unfortunately, just like with everybody that has animals in their life, they don’t live as long as us,” Almquest said. “It was time for him to cross the rainbow bridge to hopefully be free to have his little African adventure up there.”

Forever Wild is located at 8545 Buttemere Road in Phelan. For more information, visit www.foreverwildexotics.org , call 760-868-2755 or follow the sanctuary on Facebook @foreverwildsanctuary and Instagram @foreverwildexotics.

Charity Lindsey may be contacted at clindsey@vvdailypress.com or 760-951-6245. Follow her on Twitter @DP_Charity.