By now most of us have seen or at least heard of the controversial Tiger King and for some, it unraveled the scary reality for many big cats living in captivity. But lions performing tricks in front of audiences or being friendly around people isn’t something new, which might make you wonder if a bond between such a wild animal and a human is possible.
Can lions be domesticated? Lions are large and wild animals and can easily overpower and kill their owners at any moment. While lions can be trained during their cub years by professional lion trainers, they aren’t a domesticated species and can never be tamed because of their potential for aggression.
If you want to know more about the lion-human relationship, lion taming and why it’s not a good idea to keep big cats as pets then keep on reading!
Domesticated vs Tame: What’s The Difference?
Before we dive deeper into the topic of lion domestication and taming it’s important that we understand what those terms mean and the difference between the two.
No matter how friendly an animal like a lion seems it should be made clear that they’re still wild. What makes wild-born animals tame is the fact that they’re familiar with humans, and they’ve been conditioned to accept their presence.
Since they’re still genetically wild their taming is never going to pass down to their offspring. No matter how cooperative and docile they may seem and act there are no guarantees that their interaction with humans won’t turn from friendly to aggressive at some point in their life. The aggression of a tamed animal can be far more unpredictable, and dangerous, compared to domesticated animals. For example, a cat that is familiar with you is less likely to suddenly attack you aggressively unless you provoked them or pulled their tail.
According to Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist, “domestication encompasses a whole suite of genetic changes that arise as a species is bred to be friendlier and less aggressive.” So, unlike taming, domestication is a permanent genetic modification as explained by Leif Andersson, a professor at the Texas A&M College who states that “domestic animals acquired tolerance toward humans through regulatory changes of certain genes.”
Their statement also tells us that these changes didn’t happen overnight, but they took generations of selective breeding and genetic adaptations, through human intervention. Desirable traits were selected, but it’s speculated that these animals already exhibited traits that made them useful to humans. Moreso, domestication can be broken down into three main groups according to these traits. Domestication for companionship as we see in our fellow cats and dogs, for food like the farm animals, and lastly for work that includes animals like horses, donkeys, and camels.
In other words, domestication unlike taming is more permanent.
Can Lions Be Domesticated?
In most cases, animal domestication was the product of human intervention. Plant and animal domestication happened in numerous places, most likely about 11,700 years ago, and in some parts of the world before 15,000 years ago. While there were many animals that became useful to humans, big cats like lions were too wild to domesticate and there was probably no use for them. Feeding them would be too expensive and capturing them and training them would also require certain provisions, time, and the willingness to overcome the dangers of such contact.
While Captive Asian elephants were used as transport and believed to be domesticated by some they never were, similarly, big cats that were also bred in captivity were never selectively bred. But what if humans did try to domesticate lions thousands of years ago through selective breeding, or better what if they tried to do it now? In reality, such an experiment would take a dedicated group of specialists and generations of lions and probably humans to truly see if such a thing is possible.
Lyudmila Trut a 76-year-old biologist and Dmitry Belyaev had the same question half a century ago only instead of lions they used foxes for their experiment. These scientists tried to re-create the evolution that transformed wolves into dogs and they did indeed manage to domesticate a group of foxes. If they used lions instead of foxes the results could be similar or it could’ve taken much longer than half a century.
The selection would be based on choosing less aggressive lions for each breeding, but by the end of this experiment, these lions would probably look less like lions and more like a new species. The foxes that Belyaev managed to domesticate had acquired floppy ears, they were no longer red, but grey, and while or they had white spots. If we tried to go through the same process with lions, their domesticated offspring could have a different color, smaller size and the males would likely lose their mane since it signals to other lions about the male’s fitness and dominance.
So, in theory, if lions could be domesticated, they wouldn’t be lions, just like dogs aren’t wolves anymore.
Can Lions Be Tamed?
Since lion domestication never truly occurred and it doesn’t seem to be the primary concern of scientists, is taming them the best next thing?
The history of lion taming goes back to the 19th century, and the first famous lion tamer was Isaac Van Amburgh who toured Europe between 1838 and 1845. A year later Miss Hilton became the first female lion tamer, and women with such a profession were called Lion Queens.
Lions were trained in circuses and they were part of entertaining acts, the tamer would put their head inside the open jaw, make them jump through hoops or they would make the lions sit on chairs. While these owners claimed that the lions they were training were docile, accidents happened and many of them ended with fatal casualties. Historically this training was often not without cruelty, and Van Amburgh used violence against these poor big cats to submit them into obeying him.
Thankfully, animal welfare activism has helped put a stop to such practice, but still, there are places in the world where lion taming, despite being hazardous is allowed.
Lion Taming Techniques
Today, terms like “lion taming” and “lion tamer” are not appropriate because the people that work with lions understand that big cats can’t actually be tamed, so they prefer to be called “animal trainers”. Clyde Beatty, a circus animal trainer that worked with lions, explains this by saying “nobody ever really tames or domesticates cats. Professionals can work with cats, show or style them, train them individually to perform various tricks, but can never tame them completely.”
Lion training starts with an animal breaker, and while the name suggests something violent, like breaking the lion’s spirit in reality an animal breaker teaches lions to tolerate humans, recognize the breaker’s voice, and respond to commands. Animal trainers, on the other hand, aren’t usually involved in this process, instead, they work with lions who have already gone through the breaker’s training, and it’s their responsibility to teach lions how to perform tricks.
There are two lion training techniques. The first was created by psychologist B.F. Skinners and it’s called operant conditioning during which “trainers teach animals to connect a behavior with a cue(or signal), and then reward the animal for correct behavior.” It’s quite similar to the reward-based positive reinforcement we use when we’re trying to teach our kitty a new trick like using the litter box for example.
The second technique is called classical conditioning in which you “train the lion to turn at your finger-snap cue, instead of following the target, by associating the behavior with the snapping of your fingers.” If you also have a dog then you might recognize this technique when you’re training your own canine friend!
Why Do Tamed Lions Attack?
It might not come to you as a surprise that lions are capable of attacking people, even if they are professional animal trainers, but for those of you who believe that lions can truly be tamed then, such incidents might shock you. Most lion trainers, support the idea that lions can’t truly be tamed, and unfortunately, these attacks confirm the wild nature and unpredictability of exotic cats.
For instance, only recently, in 2020 a 35-year-old woman was attacked by a lion at Shoalhaven Zoo in Australia. In 2021 a pet lion attacked a child in Gulberg, Karachi which not only was taken on a video but also went viral on social media. Some might claim that both instances were done by lions that weren’t supervised by a professional tamer or they weren’t tamed in the first place, but even professionals that have worked their whole life with lions have been attacked, as it happened in Ukraine where a lion suddenly attacked his circus trainer.
According to the trainer, this incident would not have occurred if the animals were given some time to adjust to their territory after they arrived, instead the lions were stressed and lashed out. These sad attacks might paint lions as scary animals, but I think it simply shows how unhappy they are, stressed and angry even to live in unnatural conditions, away from the security of a suitable habitat.
Can You Raise A Lion As A Pet From Birth?
Lionesses in the wild will give birth to their cubs away from their lion group called pride and move them to a safe den. Similar to cats, they are responsible for disciplining their kittens and once the cubs are 3 months old they’re introduced to the pride where they’re socialized and learn how to hunt through play. Male cubs remain with their mother for up to 30 months, after which they’re mature enough to leave and the females remain as part of the pride.
Timing a grown lion would most likely never work because they’ve already been socialized to avoid humans, hunt, and be aggressive towards anyone who isn’t part of their pride. As with most animals, the best and most successful period to tame them and to teach them not to fear humans is when they’re still babies. While it can be done successfully with cubs, raising a lion to be your pet isn’t a great idea, unless you’re a professional lion trainer.
Still, even well-known professional tamers, that spend years training and socializing lions can end up getting attacked by one. Just like the magician Roy Horn of Siegfried & Roy’s Las Vegas show, who was attacked in 2003 by a white tiger. This didn’t only end his career, but it also traumatized the performer and his audience. So, if it’s a risky endeavor for lion trainers you can imagine how much more dangerous the practice of raising lion cubs as pets would be for an average person who can afford such an exotic animal.
Why Lions Should Not Be Pets?
Raising lions in captivity, or smuggling them from Africa or Asia is illegal in most parts of the world, like Europe and America. Keeping lions as pets is also banned in 21 states in the U.S. and even the United Arab Emirates have outlawed the keeping of lions as pets, despite the fact that owning a cheetah or a big cat was a status symbol.
While some still try to keep lions as pets or keep the trade of big cats alive, the organizations that try to protect these animals fight to penalize and make such practices illegal and inform people of how unethical it is. Cases of cruelty against wild animals have created massive reactions and petitions for the enforcement of animal rights to which the court in Pakistan perfectly stated, “the practice of capturing animals and keeping them in captivity is a relic of the past. It is a deplorable reflection of the treatment of living beings at the hands of another living species i.e humans.”
I’m sure at this point it’s clear that lions can also be a danger to people, even if they are tamed, but keeping these wild animals captive is a far bigger crime. Just imagine the needs of lions! Lions are the only social cat, and they live in groups to survive and each group occupies a territory that according to research “may include an area of 100 square miles (259 square kilometers) of shrubs, grasslands, and woodlands.”
Lions that are kept for the purpose of entertainment or status are never going to enjoy such space and freedom, instead, they’re kept in cages. They’re usually fed by their owners or the zookeepers which also takes away their instinctive need to hunt for their prey. At least with our kitties, we can reenact a hunting experience with toys, but lions are large animals, and reenacting a hunting experience with them would most likely end up badly for us.
How Many People Own Lions?
By looking at the current population of lions in the wild, which is estimated to stand at 20,000, it’s clear that humans have done a great deal of damage to these beautiful creatures, among many other wild animals. According to reports, “lions still exist in 28 African countries and one Asian country, only six protected area complexes are known to support more than 1,000 lions.”
It also showed the reasons behind their declining numbers explaining that “lions are most significantly impacted by illegal bushmeat hunting and body part trade, conflict with local people due to livestock depredation, habitat loss and fragmentation and to a lesser extent by unsustainable trophy hunting. “
It’s difficult to estimate the number of lions kept in zoos worldwide or the lions that are kept as pets by individuals, but numbers ranging between 7,000 to 14,000 lions between 200 to 400 farms are bred in South Africa. But probably the most terrifying form of captivity that lions go through is behind bars, on private breeding farms. These farms offer tourists the experience of petting cubs, you can walk alongside and feed a mature lion, and many of these attractions use these lions as a hunting game.
According to Dr. Luke Hunter, president of Panthera, an organization dedicated to conserving endangered big cats. “This industry pumps out cats to be shot in cages or shipped to Asia to supply the demand for big cat parts.” Lion cubs are used as entertainment and once they mature many of these organizations claim that they will be reintroduced into the wild, while it’s a known fact that mature lions are usually used as hunting trophies, for their skin, bones, and other body parts.
The idea of reintroducing captive lions to the wild is also flawed, and according to Four Paws, an animal welfare organization, “most captive-bred cats are not suited to the wild, as they have not learned, for example, how to hunt and how to deal with other predators. In addition, the potentially compromised genetics through inbreeding of captive big cats can pose a threat to the wild population.”
Fortunately, there are organizations that want to protect these animals and National Parks like the Serengeti in Tanzania which is trying to protect both the wild animals and the whole ecosystem that stretches over 14,763 km2.
Just look at these cubs in this park that are enjoying their first outdoor adventure, if only there were more parks dedicated to protecting this beautiful animal!
Are Lion Cubs Dangerous?
I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks lion cubs are one of the cutest baby animals out there. Especially for those of us who grew up with the animation the Lion King, Simba looked so innocent and huggable! Now that I’m all grown up, the reality of what petting a cub means hits somewhat differently, but besides the problematic aspects of interacting with a lion cub, would it also be dangerous?
Cubs weigh 1,5 kilograms when they’re born and as they grow, they begin to explore the world around them through play. Newly born cubs are not truly dangerous since they don’t really know how to attack or defend themselves, while a grown human could easily fend for themselves if they were met with a cub lion on the street. Perhaps possible accidents could occur once they’re able to engage in playful activities since unlike kittens they have far larger and sharper teeth and claws.
In the hands of professionals lion trainers, these accidents were would less likely to happen and as we explained above, that’s the best period to start training lions to accept humans.
Which Of The Big Cats Can Be Domesticated?
Domestication is a long process and it can’t be applied to an individual animal, but to the whole species. This means that one big cat, whether it’s a lion, a tiger, or a puma cannot be domesticated, but a group of lions, tigers, and pumas could be domesticated by humans after generations of selective breeding.
According to Suzanne Sadedin, an evolutionary biologist, most animals could possibly be domesticated, but with some specific species, this could be an easier task to achieve. Such animals would have to have certain traits like being social, so they can be raised in groups, be less aggressive, fearful, and able to respond to training.
Wild species usually lack some of these traits and wild cats are usually solitary and fearful. While lions and tigers have the capacity to be trained, the Cheetah which has been in captivity for over 5,000 years has been considered the easiest exotic cat to tame. Throughout history, they’ve been kept as pets, but still, this doesn’t really mean that they were ever domesticated. This is mostly because they produce one litter each year, and studies have proven that they do not breed well in captivity, which would make the process of selective breeding almost impossible.
While big wild cats haven’t been domesticated, crossings between domestic house cats and wild cat species have produced domesticated hybrids. Some of them include the Bengal cat which resulted from crossing between domestic shorthairs and non-domestic Asian Leopard cats.
Chausie is the result of crossing domestic Abyssinians with wild jungle cats of Asia, and one of the wildest-looking kitties is the Savannah, created by crossing the African Serval with a domestic cat.
Why Did Domestication Worked For Our Cats?
While large cats kept their wild lifestyle and have only crossed paths with humans to hunt us or become captive, our feline companions have a different history so let’s take a closer look at the DNA of our cats and how they became domesticated.
Our feline companions no matter how civil they may seem are part of a large family that consists of 36 wild cat species. Nadine Lamberski, Chief Animal Health Officer states that “these felids are morphologically similar with rounded, flat faces, facial whiskers, large eyes, and large ears. They have the widest range of body sizes of all living carnivore families.”
The Felidae family can be broken down into two subfamilies:
- Pantherinae includes cats that roar, such as lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars.
- Felinae includes the cougar, cheetah, lynxes, ocelots, and the domestic cat.
To be even more precise, all small and medium-sized cat species, including our domestic kitties, are part of the Felis genus, and genetic studies have shown that the Domestic Cat lineage “diverged from a common ancestor in North America about 6.2 million years ago.” Despite our cats being small one would think that they share more than just a family tree with large cats, which is true since researchers found that “common domestic house cat shares about 95.6% of its DNA with tigers, from which they diverged on the evolutionary tree about 10.8 million years ago.”
I think as cat owners we feel a certain underrepresentation when the topic of domestication comes up. Dogs have been known as a man’s best friend probably for thousands of years, while cats are still considered by some semi-domesticated or even feral. Thankfully, John W.S. Bradshaw, a cat behaviorist stands against such belief saying that “the domestic cat is the only member of the Felidae to form social relationships with humans, and also, the only small felid to form intraspecific social groups when free-ranging.”
It’s also perplexing that not only are cats denied their friendly nature we don’t actually hear a lot about the process of how they became domesticated. We all know how the Egyptians were obsessed with cats, but cats have been useful members of human communities at least 10,000 years ago. What’s truly fascinating is that cats in a way domesticated themselves, as they took upon the role of mousers.
I think people become confused when they see feral, stray cats, or even housecats that are unapproachable thinking that they must still be wild, but all of them are members of the same species and they’re all domesticated cats. Of course, no matter how domesticated an animal is they are still animals and they can be aggressive or defensive, but that has to do with early socialization, which is a period in their kittenhood where they learn to fear or not fear contact with humans and other animals.
I suppose one major difference between our cats and lions is that somewhere along the way cats decided to become our friends, something lions never did, but we managed to find a way to deny their choice to be free.
I think most of us would agree that we need to care for the wild lions, the big cats, and all the exotic creatures and let them live their lives in their natural habitat. As far as I know, we already have our own feline beauties at home, that thousands of years ago decided that we were cool enough to be their friends.
In theory, it might be possible to domesticate lions, but lion taming has given us a small glimpse into what that would look like, and would you really want these beautiful creatures domesticated?
Lets us know your thoughts on lion taming, and if you believe that lions could be domesticated!