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African and Asian Lions (Panthera leo) Fact Sheet: Managed Care

History of Husbandry

Elite, royalty collections become public zoo collections

  • See Cultural History
  • Kept in cages and pits, beginning ca. 2100 BC (Kisling 2001)
  • Kept by Assyrian rulers (e.g., Ashurnasirpal II, Sargon II) (Kisling 2001, except as noted)
    • Royal parks and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
    • Bred in managed care as early as 850 BC (Schaller 1972; Jackson 2010)
  • Greece (Kisling 2001)
    • Maintained in temple collections
    • Exhibited for entertainment
    • Lions still naturally occurred in Greece at the time
  • Romans (see discussion by Kisling 2001, p. 17-21)
    • Imported lions from Africa
    • Displayed in menageries, and for processions and public games (animal vs. animal combat, human vs. animal combat)
      • Spectacles become more elaborate in the Late Republic and Empire (27 BC-AD 476) periods
      • Thousands of lions slaughtered for public entertainment
        • Much written about public games; little about collections or husbandry
    • More humane, aesthetic displays of animals also common
    • Sometimes kept as pets by nobles and royalty
  • Royal menageries begin in Europe during early medieval times (Jackson 2010; Royal Beasts)
    • Animals given as diplomatic gifts to royalty
    • Owning rare and exotic animals showed status and power
  • Europe in the Middle Ages
    • Exotic animals housed in private collections of aristocrats and nobles (Kisling 2001)
      • Inside royals’ castles and nobles’ manors
      • First permanent zoological collection, ca. 1100
        • Woodstock, near Oxford, England
        • Belonged to William the Conqueror, and later, his son King Henry I (1068-1135)
        • Included lions, lynx, leopards, camels, porcupines, owl, etc.
        • Collection moved to the Tower of London in 1235
          • Housed animals for 600  years
      • Tower of London Royal Menagerie (Kisling 2001; Jackson 2010; Royal Beasts)
        • At first, only for royal family and guests
        • 1420s, open to the public—with costly admission
          • Only later did it become a popular sight-seeing destination
        • Lions housed there from 1210 through 1820s (possibly ‘til the Menagerie closed in 1832)
        • 1210: First record of lions at the Tower
        • 1272-1377: Royal collection consisted almost entirely of lions (or at least big cats) during reign of first three Edwards
          • Lions housed in Lion Tower (constructed 1275)
        • 1622: James I builds platform for watching lions made to fight other animals
        • 1832: Menagerie closes and animals moved to London Zoo
      • Chateau de Louvre
        • Phillip VI (1293-1350) creates space for lions and leopards
        • Lion house in Florence
          • About 24 lions
          • Set loose in arenas on special occasions
            • Did battle with other animals
            • Mild compared to Roman events
    • Early public menageries with lions spring up in Europe (Kisling 2001; Jackson 2010)
      • The only way most people gained exposure to non-native wildlife
      • Predecessors to modern zoos
  • Early North American imports
    • 1716: A lion becomes the first exotic animal to be exhibited in North America (Kisling 2001)
      • Housed at people’s homes
      • Later, toured New England cities and the Caribbean
    • 1791: 2nd lion imported to US (Kisling 2001)
    • 1874: 1st record of a lion at a zoo (Stephanie Eller, Philadelphia Zoo registrar, personal communication 2016)
      • Philadelphia Zoo, the U.S.'s first zoo
        • Brings lions into their collection in December of their opening year

SDZWA Husbandry

Sources: Brynes (2015) and Carmignani (2016), except where noted

Diet in managed care

  • Adults
    • Meat-based diet
    • Adult females (Tony Franceschiello, personal communication, 2016)
      • Eat about 5-6 lbs of food per day
    • Adult males
      • Eat about 10 lbs of food per day
  • Cubs

Healthcare and training

  • Each lion is checked over each day to monitor its health and note any concerns
    • Lions present various parts of their bodies (e.g., paws, mouth) for keepers to examine
  • Husbandry behaviors
    • “A way for keepers to communicate with the animals they care for” (Byrnes 2015)
    • Used to provide care, weigh animals, perform health checks, and move/transport animals
    • Keepers use a combination of operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, and trust-based relationships
    • When providing care, there is a safe barrier between keeper and the lion (“protected care”)
    • Example husbandry behaviors
      • Present paw
        • Check claws and toes
      • Open mouth
        • Check teeth and gums
      • Rise up
      • Lie down
      • Go to station/target
      • Crate
        • Used for transport
  • Specialized health check tasks
    • Give vaccinations (e.g., rabies and feline viruses)
    • Take blood samples
      • Monitor response to vaccinations
      • Check for infections or organ problems
      • Test for heartworm
    • Administer eye drops following cataract surgery (Tony Franceschiello, personal communication, 2016) 


  • Helps keep lions active and challenged
  • Types provided by keepers
    • Social play
      • Interact with pride members
    • Exhibit elements
      • Trees to climb
      • Rises and structures to sleep on
      • Glass panels allow interation with guests
    • “Meatball hunts”
      • Meat treats hidden throughout the exhibit
      • Keep lions’ hunting skills honed
    • Novel objects to explore and play with
    • Scents
      • Kitchen herbs, animal hair, high-end perfume, wood shavings, elephant dung
      • Rub and roll on these smells
        • Wild lions mask their scent to improve their hunting success
    • “Blood-sicles”
      • Bits of meat in frozen ice blocks
        • Special treat on hot days
      • Stimulates senses of smell, touch, and taste
    • Variation in diet
      • At San Diego Zoo, tilapia occasionally added to lion’s pool for them to catch and eat

Husbandry reading

Additional scientific studies

  • Van Metter et al. (2008): experiments with enrichment objects

It Started with a Roar!

Lion cub with

San Diego Zoo founder, Dr. Harry Wegeforth, with lion cub.

The sound of lion roars from the 1916 Panama-California Exposition inspired Dr. Harry Wegeforth to found the San Diego Zoo.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

A Special Enclosure for a Special Lion

Prince a lion

Prince, the San Diego Zoo's most famous lion, investigates a new zoo habitat.

In 1923, Prince and two female lions, Julia and Sarah, became a sensation in the San Diego Zoo's new open-air lion grotto. The first of its kind outside of Europe, this enclosure with no bars was dubbed revolutionary.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Modern Enclosures Provide Enrichment

Two lions atop Jeep in Lion Camp

Two pride members rest atop a safari-themed structure in the Safari Park's "Lion Camp" exhibit.

Image credit: Photo by Cassie Lee. © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

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