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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Lion Meat, Anyone?

Air Date: Week of

A probe by Living on Earth finds that some butcher shops are offering lion meat--but it's unlikely it came from some big game hunt. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah found lion meat on the shelf at his neighborhood butcher and followed the trail to a dark corner of the exotic meat trade.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Barbecue season’s here and for a real thrill on the grill, you might be game for a rare bite: lion. It seems the king of the jungle is available in some butcher shops across the country, including one not far from the den of Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah. Ike followed the trail of this big cat from the cooler of his neighborhood market to an obscure corner of the meat industry.


SRISKANDARAJAH: A boutique grocery store in Cambridge, Massachusetts called Savenor’s is owned by Ron Savenor.

SAVENOR: I like to be known as the “meat guy.”

SRISKANDARAJAH: And managed by Juliana Lyman.

LYMAN: Savenor’s has been around since 1939. Its claim to fame is, we were Julia Child’s butcher.

[CHILD AUDIO: “Welcome to the French Chef, I’m Julia Child.”]

LYMAN: And when she moved to Cambridge, she was looking for someone who could supply her with the quality meats that she needed for her cooking show.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Lyman walks me through Savenor’s top-shelf meat cooler.

LYMAN: So we have amazing French pâtés, French foie gras, traditional, beautiful bacons, sausages that are all local…

SAVENOR: I tell people we’re the old fashioned butcher shop.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Old fashioned, but with a certain flair.

LYMAN: And then we have buffalo sausage, and then we have elk sausage…

SRISKANDARAJAH: In addition to the French Chef’s usual dinner fare…

[CHILDS FROM THE FRENCH CHEF: “A covey of quail, and a gaggle of geese, and a peep of chickens…”]

LYMAN: Python from Vietnam. Boneless turtle - domestic. And besides that...

SRISKANDARAJAH: In the middle of the meat menagerie…

LYMAN: We have the lion chop and the lion leg roast.

SRISKANDARAJAH: That sounds like a typo - with the ‘o’ and the ‘i’ reversed. A loin is a tender cut of red meat. A lion is an international symbol of power and courage - rampant on flags from Scotland to Sri Lanka. The lion is king.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Steaks wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic - even for 60 dollars a pound - don’t sound like the king of the jungle. But if you can get past the sticker shock, Ron says this meat can tap into our most ancient appetites.

SAVENOR: I mean, if you look back over history, what did people eat? They ate local game because that was their protein.


SRISKANDARAJAH: It’s hard to think of a noble big cat as protein or gourmet shoppers in Cambridge as primal hunters.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Savenor and Lyman admit that out of everything in their cooler of curiosities, lion creates an uproar.

SAVENOR: It’s funny because we sell alligator and we sell rattlesnake and people are okay about that stuff.


LYMAN: Our customers are pretty polarized on it.

SAVENOR: You get people from hunters, to people who just love meat - and then you get other people who say, ‘oh, those are extinct and that’s bad!’

LYMAN: So it’s a real passionate reaction, and there’s really not a lot of in-between.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Savenor’s isn’t breaking any laws selling lion meat. The African Lion is not listed under “CITES”, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The store labels it “Free Range African Lion.”


SRISKANDARAJAH: Which conjures up an image of a 19th century big game hunter, in khaki, aiming a long rifle into the African plains.


SRISKANDARAJAH: But Lyman assures me that that’s not how they get their lion meat - that would be illegal.

LYMAN: It’s not wild, it’s not safari, it’s not bushmeat - we can’t do that.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Butchers aren’t allowed to sell wild game. “Free Range African Lion” is just a butcher’s way of saying: if you’re going to offer something really unusual, you might as well have fun. And whether you advertise it as ‘feline filets’ or the ‘mane course,’ the ‘punch-lion’ is definitely part of the sale.

LYMAN: It’s definitely tongue-in-cheek. Selling exotics, it helps to have a sense of humor - because you are selling lion. This stuff is novelty.

SRISKANDARAJAH: So if Savenor’s isn’t importing from the Savannah, whose lion is it anyway?

SAVENOR: I can tell you the name of every farmer, where almost every piece of meat comes from.

SRISKANDARAJAH: “Almost.” But when it comes to the lion farm…

SAVENOR: I actually haven’t been to that farm, but I speak to the processor.

LYMAN: The distributor that we deal with we’ve been dealing with for years - decades. And every once in a while when they come across this, they’ll give Ron a call because they know that we can sell it.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Most of us only “come across” lions when we’re at the circus or zoo.

LYMAN: I don’t know of circuses, I don’t know. I do know that they can come from zoos. The biggest source is conservation lands that need to cull the pride. Then they go to the farm to kind of live out their days. They’re not confined in a cage, so they - you know, they do roam around. Then they’re slaughtered. It’s all under federal inspection. The farms themselves - the places that it comes from - are the ones that are inspected.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Lion meat retailers from California to Cambridge repeat nearly the same story. They say that their meat is raised on a lion farm outside Chicago and that the farm is USDA-inspected. Online, at “ExoticMeatMarket.com” lion meat is even more expensive - a whole tenderloin retails for 1,400 dollars. The site claims:

[ANNOUNCER’S VOICE: “Our African Lions are raised in the State of Illinois. African Lions are slaughtered under USDA inspection. African Lion meat is processed in a USDA-inspected plant.”]

SRISKANDARAJAH: So I called up the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, the office that enforces the Animal Welfare Act. Spokesperson Dave Sacks says his office makes sure all sorts of animals on display are treated humanely.

SACKS: That would be circuses, and zoos, and aquariums and petting farms - that sort of thing.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Medical research, puppy and kitten farms, and even the breeders of exotic animals. But what about a lion farm?

SACKS: That would not fall under this program because those animals look to be raised for food or fiber and that’s not covered under the Animal Welfare Act.

SRISKANDARAJAH: So what about lions that used to be on display but are now tucked out of sight, say, on a meat farm near Chicago?

SACKS: Under the Animal Welfare Act, we only regulate regulated animals who are being used in regulated activities. So a lion would be a regulated animal, but if it’s not being exhibited to the public or being bred for resale, then we would have nothing to do with it.

SRISKANDARAJAH: So your office does not regulate lion meat?

SACKS: No it does not.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Another part of the USDA, the Food Safety Inspection Service, inspects all the standard grocery store meats - poultry, pork, beef - and enforces the Humane Slaughter Act. The office emailed me this blanket statement:

[ANNOUNCER’S VOICE: “The USDA does not regulate lion meat.”]

SRISKANDARAJAH: They told me to try the Food and Drug Administration. So I called Scott J. MacIntire, the FDA’s Chicago director.

MACINTIRE: What falls into FDA’s jurisdiction is anything that USDA doesn’t regulate.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Okay, so if I asked you…a live lion being raised or held for meat - is that FDA?

MACINTIRE: That’s a good question. (Laughs). I would hesitate to really commit one way or the other.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Even though the often-cited lion farm is in his backyard, MacIntire told me the Chicago FDA hasn’t inspected any living lions. But they have been to the place that processes dead lions for their meat. They heard about a local distributor who was supplying lion burgers to an Arizona restaurant and decided to check it out.

MACINTIRE: Yeah, that’s correct - that’s how we picked up on it ourselves. Once we were aware that Czimer’s was a processor of game meat, you know, we conducted an inspection.

SRISKANDARAJAH: “Czimer's Game and Seafood” is the name of the Chicago-area butcher putting lion meat on American tables. It’s been around for about 100 years - from around the same time that Upton Sinclair wrote about the Chicago meat industry. His portrayal of its unsanitary conditions in “The Jungle” led to the creation of the FDA.

FDA inspectors took samples of exotic meats from Richard Czimer’s store for DNA testing. Based on that “genetic analysis” , they accused him of false labeling and selling meat from the endangered grizzly bear.

MACINTIRE: And we referred that information to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife for whatever they deem necessary.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The Fish and Wildlife Service takes over jurisdiction when endangered animals are involved. This wasn’t Czimer’s first encounter with Fish and Wildlife. Special Agent Tim Santel spearheaded an investigation.

SANTEL: The investigation known as Operation Snow Plow…

SRISKANDARAJAH: How did it get that name, by the way?

SANTEL: (Laughs). Well there was a person in the Chicago area who was seeking to purchase tigers so that he could kill them and sell their various body parts. And the only information or identification they gave me at the time was - all they knew was he owned a snow plow business.


SANTEL: (Laughs). So that’s why I named it Operation Snow Plow.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Operation Snow Plow took six years of undercover work.

SANTEL: In our case, which we dealt with a large number of animals, I would say all but two were born in captivity - either at a roadside zoo, maybe they were a part of a circus act, maybe some animal broker had surplus animals. They came from all walks of life.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Santel says pet tigers and leopards can sell for as little as 1000 dollars on the black market. And a group of men in the Chicago area figured out that these animals were worth more dead than alive.

SANTEL: These guys, you know - they’re selling these hides for several thousand to ten thousand dollars a piece. The gallbladders are probably fetching them a few hundred bucks. You know, the teeth and claws might give them some more. The skulls are being sold for whatever.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The Fish and Wildlife sting uncovered what they called a multi-billion dollar black market.

SANTEL: You know, one particular day in March, 1998, there were, I think, eight tigers killed at one time. They were acquired from an animal dealer, brought to an isolated warehouse in suburban Chicago where two individuals with handguns shot all eight tigers.

SRISKANDARAJAH: They skinned them and extracted the valuable bits - just leaving the meat, about 200 pounds for each big cat.

SANTEL: At the end of the day, they found a buyer who was willing to purchase the carcasses.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The buyer: Czimer’s.

SANTEL: We saw just as many or more lions killed in Operation Snow Plow that we saw tigers killed.

SRISKANDARAJAH: There’s nothing illegal about killing or selling lions. But “in 2002 Czimer pleaded guilty” to selling federally protected tigers, a spotted leopard, and one liger. He served six months in federal prison and paid 116,000 dollars to the Save the Tiger Fund. Endangered tigers do have some protection, but lions have none.

ROBERTS: We have to recognize that the trend with lions is just as it is with tigers and has been for years. And we need to learn from those mistakes and not let the lion become the tiger of Africa.

SRISKANDARAJAH: That’s Adam Roberts, the executive vice president of the animal advocacy group, “Born Free USA” . Roberts says that lion meat is a regulatory black hole, and his organization sees more and more lions falling into it.

ROBERTS: What we’ve determined is that, on the one hand, you have a growing number of incidents of people selling lion meat, more availability of lion meat, but at the same time no increase in the protection for lions - so they’re fundamentally falling through the cracks.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Neither the USDA, the FDA, or the Fish and Wildlife service looks after these lions. Born Free USA thinks that a new protected status could help.

ROBERTS: That’s right - Born Free USA and a number of our colleagues at other animal protection and conservation organizations have petitioned the Department of the Interior to list the lion as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. And then it could be up to a year or so before we actually find whether the Department of the Interior will in fact list the animal as endangered.

SRISKANDARAJAH: A listing on the Endangered Species Act would control the trade of lion pelts and parts. Scientists estimate that the African Lion population has been cut in half over the past two decades - there are only about 40,000 wild lions left. The biggest threat to the pride comes from retaliatory killings and loss of habitat - not American appetites.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Back in Cambridge, Savenor’s Market says they sell about 60 lion steaks a year. Mark, a butcher at “Savenor's” , prepared one for me. He heated oil in a pan and then dropped in the lion steak.


BUTCHER: You get a nice sizzle, if you can hear that…

SRISKANDARAJAH: Which promptly shriveled.

BUTCHER: And what’s happening is, it’s constricting - it’s starting to shrink because it’s muscle tissue.

SRISKANDARAJAH: I’ve never seen a dead thing fight so much.

BUTCHER: Predators are pretty much solid muscle. When you add heat to muscle, it automatically constricts.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Mark had to restrain the steak from clenching up like a fist.


BUTCHER: So what I learned early in my career as a cook was: hold it down.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Mark seasoned the steak and store manager Juliana Lyman offered a taste.

LYMAN: Looks good, yeah? Doesn’t it? Nice. See, nice, little herb, little butter, little salt, little pepper. It’s surprisingly mild. If you weren’t told that it was lion meat, you’d be like, ‘huh, this is really...’

BUTCHER: Delicious pork.

LYMAN: Yeah.

SRISKANDARAJAH: It does tastes like pork. But because it’s so ‘muscley,’ you have to chew it for a long time. So on my lion hunt, this is what I found:

That no federal agency regulates raising or killing lions for food; that the exotic animal trade is murky and somewhat illegal; and that we can eat almost anything - but the story behind where our meat comes from can make it hard to swallow.

For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah in Cambridge, Massachusetts.



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