A lion named Henry, a lioness named Louisa, and four of Louisa’s cubs are dead. The Longleat Safari Park in the United Kingdom euthanized them all while the park was closed for the winter. Why would anyone put down six apparently healthy lions? The official explanation is a bit disturbing. It’s also a bit confusing. Even lion experts are puzzled.
It might be because the park just has too many lions and they’re fighting with each other. It might be because these particular lions were not as healthy as they appeared due to genetic defects caused by inbreeding. Longleat has offered up both rationales. They appear to be interrelated reasons, so it’s hard to understand what’s really going on.
What we do know is that much of the park’s staff was in tears when they returned to work and discovered what had been done. Visitors to the newly reopened park got no explanation for why these six lions were gone.
What‘s Going on at Longleat Safari Park?
Longleat Safari Park is a popular tourist attraction in Wiltshire, U.K. Established in 1966, it calls itself the number one safari park outside of Africa. For a number of years, it has been the home base for the BBC’s Animal Park television series. Located on the estate of the Marquess of Bath, one of Longleat’s biggest draws is its two prides of lions.
These lions generated a flurry of positive press attention mere weeks ago. Park staff members captured astonishing photos of a Longleat lioness leaping from a tree, making it appear she was “flying.” See a video compilation of those photos here:
Firstly, we do not and will not ever put down any of our animals unless their health is very much at risk and even then it is only because we would have exhausted all other options. In regards to the lions, there has been a large increase in pregnancies, resulting in a 40% increase in population. This has unfortunately resulted in excessive violent behaviour, putting 21 of them at risk.
Sadly one lion, Henry, had to be put down earlier this year due to injuries from an attack within the enclosure. The further lions referred to were put down due to associated and severe health risks. Following these incidents, five lions from this enclosure are to be moved to other premises. Longleat takes the utmost care in trying to protect the welfare and safety of all our animals.
A large increase in pregnancies? Was Longleat employing any contraceptive control over its lion population? If not, this would seem irresponsible at best.
“I would question why Longleat felt the need to breed lions,” Dr. Pieter Kat told the BBC News. “[B]reeding is entirely preventable through the use of a contraceptive pill and it all comes down to proper zoo management.”
He added, “Zoos are under enormous pressure to produce babies… they are a big attraction for the public and zoos want to have lots of babies.”
Is this why Longleat suddenly has to deal with a 40 percent increase in lion pregnancies? Did they want more babies without planning for the problems that go along with an increase in population?
Those Mysterious “Associated and Severe Health Risks“ Explained
Further explanation of Longleat’s vaguely referenced “associated and severe health risks” came later, when Longleat indicated publicly that Louisa and her cubs had been acting oddly. Louisa exhibited “clinical signs of head tilt and tremors throughout her life,” according to Longleat.
Following loud public outcry over the deaths of the six lions, the safari park has posted an expanded explanation of what happened on its web site. According to Longleat, Louisa arrived at Longleat in 2011 as an 18-month-old from the Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm. Longleat says her atypical behavior was at first thought to be the result of poor nutrition as a cub. Longleat says there was therefore no reason at this point not to allow Louisa to breed.
Her first litter of cubs did not survive, and she became pregnant again in short order. When the cubs exhibited similar neurological conditions to Louisa, Longleat says it realized this was not a case of nutritional deprivation. Longleat said the cubs’ problems:
prompted Longleat to do a thorough review of [Louisa's] genetic lineage. This review uncovered moderate levels of inbreeding in her lineage 5-6 generations prior to her birth and having ruled out other causes was thought to be the most consistent reason for the condition noted in her and all of her cubs.
The park said Louisa’s four cubs showed signs of “ataxia, incoordination and odd aggressive behaviour that were not considered normal or appropriate compared to other animals within the collection.”
A possible example of Louisa’s problematic behavior is the fact that she was reportedly responsible, along with another lion, for the attack on Henry on Jan. 7th. His injuries were severe enough to require his euthanization, Longleat says.
All of these factors led Longleat to decide Louisa and her cubs must be put down. They chose to do that during the park’s winter break, when staff and patrons would not be present.
What Louisa‘s Former Homes Have to Say
It should be next to impossible for a zoo or animal reserve to end up with inbred lions, Dr. Kat told the BBC News. An international stud book system is in place to avoid exactly that problem, and most zoos use it.
The Linton Zoo in Cambridge, England, bred Louisa and her two brothers. All three lions were later transferred to Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm near Bristol. Noah’s Ark says Louisa was in good health when she left that facility for the Longleat Safari Park. Interestingly, they still have her brothers. They report that these lions are fine and show no signs of neurological problems.
Noah’s Ark says it successfully managed Louisa’s problems using a special diet. It added that “these historical issues predate Louisa’s time at Longleat, Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm and Linton Zoo and are no reflection of the standards of care given at the parks.”
At what point does a zoo or animal preserve have a responsibility to understand the genetic background of an animal it wants to permit to produce offspring? Having failed to explore this question, Longleat now faces a public relations nightmare. Patrons are excoriating the park’s decision on its Facebook page.
In an odd coincidence, the case of the Longleat lions came to light at the same time that a zoo in Copenhagen chose to euthanize a healthy young giraffe named Marius to keep him from breeding. Marius was then dissected and fed to the zoo’s lions, in full view of the public.
Please, zoos and animal reserves — be careful with your animals. Learn from what happened at Longleat. Know your animals’ histories before you breed them, if that information is available to you. If you don’t want them to reproduce, employ a contraceptive program. Isn’t that a better outcome than killing beloved animals because something went wrong?
Photo credit: Thinkstock
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