When Dublin did a roaring trade in lions

The Royal Zoological Society of Ireland bred lions from the 1850s, principally for zoos and circuses abroad

What links the British secret service, an Irish red setter and Dublin Zoo? The answer: an international trade in lions.

The image adorning the annual report of the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland for 1899 is of an Irish red setter. She looks up at the photographer as she nurses the zoo’s three new lion cubs. The cubs had been rejected by their mother and had made use of a goat (tied down for the purpose). The red setter proved a good surrogate and two of the cubs survived.

The society had gone to extra lengths to save the cubs because it feared they might be the last of the Dublin-bred strain of lions it had begun breeding in the 1850s. The loss would also have been financial: Dublin lion cubs were principally an export product, sold to zoos, circuses and travelling menageries.

As zoological gardens expanded in size and increased in number during the 19th century, lions were in high demand. Lion tamers such as the famous Van Amburgh filled theatres across the world. In Dublin in 1832, Lady Morgan recorded her delight at a lion show in which the lion and tamer had played “like a great Newfoundland dog romping with a child”.


The underlying threat of potential disaster was the main attraction, and Morgan remarked that the tamer was destined “to be eaten by [the lions] some fine day”. There was a ready market for lion cubs, and the Irish society was able to turn its success in lion-breeding into a reasonably profitable business. The cubs fetched about £40 at the turn of the century (€5,000 or so in today’s money). A lion caught in the wild and imported could cost £200 or more.

Lion-breeding in the gardens was not only a financial interest, it was a scientific one as well. Valentine Ball produced the first report on the Irish lion industry in 1886. He considered such questions as the seasonality of breeding, the usual litter size, the sex ratio of the cubs and survival rates. In the zoo, lions bred twice a year and usually produced litters of four cubs with more male than female cubs on average. Ball hypothesised that in the wild the lions might breed in response to environmental cues.

The lions also prompted speculation about the conditions that made breeding such a success in Dublin. Today, successful breeding is considered a marker of a good zoo environment. No modern zoo would tolerate the cramped, dull, barred cages that were home to the Dublin lions in the 1880s and 1890s.

Instead, difference in diet was often suggested. Dublin lions received bone-in meat, often derived from slaughtered carthorses. It was thought this diet prevented nutritional deficiencies that seemed to lead to cleft palate and other problems in London-born lions.

After Ball’s paper, the society began to keep more extensive records of its breeding and the results. The society’s annual reports seldom failed to comment on the state of the lions, which became a barometer of the zoo’s success. The lions also led to speculation on the effects of artificial selection. For example, Caesar, the final male of the Dublin lion strain, seemed to have developed large hindquarters and smaller forequarters.

To maintain its breeding stock, Dublin Zoo had to import new lions. These were often females, as the male was considered the keeper of the strain. In the wild a single male fathers the cubs within a pride; the zoo replicated these conditions.

Occasionally, however, male lions were purchased or received as gifts. It is one such gift that required the British secret service’s assistance in 1911. In May that year, King George V gave the zoo a lion that the king of Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) had given him. A Somali keeper accompanied the lion on its journey from Africa. The arrangements and associated costs of transportation of this tribute were borne by the British secret service.

Thanks to Prof John Agar of University College London for the reference to the lion transported by the British secret service

Juliana Adelman lectures in history at St Patrick’s College Drumcondra