Putting lions in the picture

IT’S believed the lion that roars at the start of Metro Goldwyn Meyer films was born in Dublin Zoo.

But is this true, and, if so, how did a Dublin lion make it to Hollywood? Historian Catherine de Courcy examines the strange claim in a piece entitled Dublin Zoo and the MGM Lion, which appears in the current edition of Zoo Matters.

There must have been more than one MGM lion. The role, like that of Tarzan and James Bond, would have been played by various ‘actors’ over the years. The first feline star was filmed in the early 1920s, in black and white. With developments in film technology, new ‘takes’ would have been needed.

Colour film, 35mm and wide-screen formats, stereo sound and digital techniques would all have rendered previous sequences redundant. The maximum average lifespan of a lion is 24 years, so half a dozen actors may have performed the role.

Until the 1920s and 30s, Dublin’s lions were housed indoors and it seems unlikely an animal could have been satisfactorily filmed, given the lighting demands of cameras then. In 1941, the zoo opened an outdoor lion facility. With a landscaped, rocky backdrop and the animals separated from the public by a moat, the cats would have been more photogenic. In 1947, a camera team filmed one named Stephen, and de Courcy says this may have inspired the MGM story. There is still a possibility, she says, that the original star did hail from Dublin. According to an entry in online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, a lion named Slats featured from 1924 to 1928. He was said to have been born in Dublin in 1919. No birth certificate for Slats could be found among the zoo’s records, but two cubs were born that year. One remained in Dublin; the other appears to have been sold. Could the exile have been Slats? Dublin was an obvious venue for lion-filming; the Irish lion industry was world famous. The zoo began breeding the cats in the 1850s, with animals brought from Africa. Between 1857 and 1876, according to Dublin Zoo, an Illustrated History, 92 cubs were born here. The animals were celebrated for their health and beauty. Former US president, Ulysses Grant, was among the celebrities who came to see them. In 1949, the zoo was asked to loan 15 lions to gobble up Christians in Mervyn Le Roy’s Quo Vadis. The request was refused.

The King of Beasts is not the largest of the cats. That distinction goes to the tiger. The lion succeeded to the throne because, to westerners, he was a relatively local species; North Africa is closer than India, the nearest home of tigers. Lions roamed Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. The species became extinct in Europe and America at the end of the last ice age. The Biblical Lion of Judah is also gone. African populations have been decimated over the last few centuries, and lions are largely confined to reserves and national parks. Of the seven varieties that survive, the Asiatic lion is the most distinctive and most threatened. Only one population remains; 411 lions were counted at Gujarat’s Gir Forest national park, last April. A breeding programme, carried out by zoos, has produced 126 Asiatic cubs. These are distributed around wildlife parks in India and elsewhere. Ours is one of the international zoos involved in the conservation programme.

Sheila, the last representative of the Irish lion industry, is now 23. Will our great lion-breeding tradition end with her? By no means; it may soon enter its most important phase. Asiatic lion cubs are waiting in the wings. They can’t be sent to Dublin while Sheila is still there; she may be carrying residual infections. Keepers will be sad when she dies, but her demise may herald the start of a new lion-breeding era.

Dublin Zoo, an Illustrated History, by Catherine de Courcy, is published by the Collins Press. €18.99


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