June 23, 2010
Lions are often called magnificent, majestic, the “king of beasts.” They’re not often called “meat.”
But lion meat has been on the menu of several U.S. restaurants in recent years. In South Philadelphia, one restaurant tried serving lion for about six weeks in 2008. As this article explains (with the witty lead-in: “Simba for dinner? You lion.”), Chef Michael Zulli took it off the restaurant’s menu after being barraged with “how-do-you-sleep-at-night phone calls” from the public. He said he didn’t see what the big deal was, since the meat came from an Illinois farm where the animals are legally raised for human consumption.
That same year, a St. Petersburg Times reporter wrote a rave review of a steak house’s lion rib chops. This spring in Sacramento, Flaming Grill Cafe, which specializes in exotic meats like alligator, yak and ostrich, briefly sold lion meat burgers. And this week, another U.S. restaurant—this time in Mesa, Arizona—earned notoriety for serving lion meat as part of a novelty menu to celebrate the World Cup and its host nation, South Africa. The owner reportedly received a bomb threat and more than 150 angry e-mails, and seemed bemused by the outrage. The Telegraph quotes him as saying: “In Africa they do eat lions, so I assume if it’s OK for Africans to eat lions then it should be OK for us.”
Is it really? In the wild, African lions are considered a “vulnerable species,” only one step below endangered, and up to one-quarter of wild lion populations have been lost in the past decade or two. But lions raised on game farms—as was said to be the case in all of the above examples—don’t factor into wild populations. So, on the one hand, maybe it doesn’t really matter. On the other hand: doesn’t creating a market for lion meat as an expensive delicacy risk encouraging the growth of a black market in illegally hunted lion meat?
And then there’s the basic gut feeling many people have that it’s morally wrong to eat lions, the way it makes most of us squeamish to think about eating a house cat, a dog or a horse. They’re too intelligent; too simpatico. (There’s not a lot of logic when you think it through—it’s not a matter of size or fur or even cuteness, since most of us eat creatures like cows and rabbits. But who said feelings were logical?)
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.