With its finances in roughly the same shape as a wounded wildebeest on the veldt, you might think that the Illinois House would have better things to do than worry about lion meat. But as the Sun-Times reported, Rep. Luis Arroyo, Democrat from Chicago, is pushing a lion-meat ban, presumably after a night of watching Animal Planet. Sell or slaughter lion and you could wind up in jail for a year and/or fined $25,000 under Arroyo's proposed legislation. To which the media and the food-interested responded with one voice: This is a problem? Seriously? To our knowledge, lion has never appeared on any Chicago menu in modern times; the main supplier of exotic meats in the city, Chicago Game & Gourmet, says they don't carry it; and the only place ever known to have sold it, a century-old butcher shop called Czimer's out in a semi-rural distant suburb ... actually didn't sell it. They got prosecuted a decade ago for passing tiger and liger off as lion. We are not kidding. (The controversial shop apparently supplied the real thing on other occasions, but it is not available now.)
So this is a solution in search of a problem, right? Nobody's actually eating lion in Illinois? Well ... not exactly. Because I've actually been to a slaughterhouse that processes lion from time to time.
In 2009, I went with the Chicago Reader's Mike Sula and Lula Cafe chef Jason Hammel to Eickman's, a brightly modern meat processor in Seward, Illinois, about two hours west of Chicago, which prides itself on helping the public to be informed about what lies behind the meat they buy. Rural processors in this part of the country aren't like the industrial slaughterhouses into which cattle or pigs flow in a continuous stream. They handle a lot of game for local hunters, and have to be adaptable to butchering whatever turns up at their door. And in the freezer case at Eickman's, along with pork and beef, you're liable to find everything from llama to bear — even lion.
Third-generation processor Tom Eickman explained how you slaughter an animal like a bear, which isn't going to amble to the killing floor like a steer: "They come live to us — we would actually shoot them out the back doors. They stay in the cage. Same thing with any lions that we do — they come in and we shoot them in the crate." So where do lions for meat come from? "They're all farm-raised," he explains. "Usually upper Wisconsin, upper Minnesota. You get out in the backwoods areas where people can be by themselves, and they'll raise ... anything."
Which points to a problem with Arroyo's legislation — and a concurrent effort to designate lions as an endangered species in the U.S. The motive is supposed to be at least in part protecting the population of the species. But animals that get farmed for meat are precisely the ones that do get protected, for profit.
Cattle, which we eat, are doing just fine as a species; it's California condors and spotted owls, which we don't eat, that are in trouble. Objecting to lions for meat because it bothers you that Simba winds up on a plate is a moral and aesthetic choice, but there is no wild American population of lions to protect. Making it impossible for lion farmers to sell lion meat can only mean fewer lions being raised in the U.S. at all.