Yes, Lions Really Do Want to Eat Your Children

Slate's Culture Blog
May 11 2012 6:23 PM

Why Lions Want to Eat Your Children

LionEatingChild_still

Still from "Lioness tries to eat baby at the zoo" on YouTube.

You may like to watch videos of cute-looking animals on YouTube, but be advised: Some of these animals would like to eat your children. That seemed to be the message of the new video “Lion tries to eat baby,” which went viral on YouTube this week. The video shows a lioness at the Oregon Zoo clawing at the glass and trying to get its jaws around a toddler’s head, all while only inches from the child’s face.

As the Huffington Post notes, this is not the first time such an event has been captured on video. Indeed, videos of lions clawing at children represent their own tiny YouTube subgenre. HuffPo wrote this one up  last year:

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Transfixed by these clips, we decided to ask an expert who has worked with these ferocious beasts to explain what is actually going on. Are they really trying to eat these children, or are they only exhibiting playful behavior?

Probably both. Lions, it turns out, like playing with their food. Craig Packer of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota noted that while “some of the lions look quite playful in their attempts … sometimes lions and cheetah will spend several minutes playing with wildebeest calves or gazelle fawns before finally chomping them.” He added that “predators generally treat calves/fawns/babies differently from adults because they are such easy prey; there’s no real chance of escape, so what’s the hurry?”

It’s rare for lions to eat babies. In a study of over 500 cases of lion attacks in Tanzania, Packer found that most victims of lion attacks were a bit older, and tended to be caught wandering far from any shelter. Some lions hunt humans because of a lack of other natural prey, while others simply seem to like how people taste. But while it’s unusual, baby attacks do happen. Packer said that in such exceptional cases, “we interviewed families whose kids were ripped from their mothers’ arms or taken from their grandmothers’ hands.”

At zoos, lions may be provoked by children more often than adults just because they’re lower to the ground. Packer explained that lions like to bite their prey around the neck or head, and pointed out that—because of how most zoos are constructed—children’s heads tend to be right at the lion’s eye level.

But what about the fact that the toddler in the most recent video was dressed in zebra stripes (and that yet another child was similarly striped)? It’s probably just a coincidence. Packer explained, “I don't think the zebra stripes have any significance. The lions are obviously cuing into the outline … of the children.” Of course, for humans, the stripes may add to the videos’ appeal.

Finally, we asked Packer whether these videos suggest that zoo lions are underfed. He doubted it: “If you were a captive killer, cooped up in a glass enclosure day after day your entire life and all you ever ate was stale meat, what would you do when you thought you'd found a special treat?”

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer.