Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance logo
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library logo

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.

SDZWA Library Links