November 26, 2012 Anniversary of the First Exhibition of a Lion in America

There was a time when most people in the world would live and die without ever getting to see a lion.

Or a giraffe. Or a hippo, rhino, gorilla, zebra, or elephant.

It is startling to think about people living their entire lives without ever seeing even one of all the exotic animals we get to see—on TV and in movies, in books and photos and on the internet—but also live, “in the flesh,” in zoos and circuses and other exhibits.

I just went to the Los Angeles Zoo and had a fantastic time seeing all the typical (to us! – to we lucky ones who live in modern times!) zoo animals such as koalas and monkeys and tigers. I had an even better time seeing some unusual animals I had never seen before, such as the Chinese giant salamander (a 6-foot-long salamander!) and the Babirusa (a “pig deer” whose tusks grow up through its snout and begin to look almost like antlers!).

And now, today, I am reading that the very first exotic animal ever known to be exhibited in America was a lion shown in Boston, Massachusetts, on this date in 1716.

So this exhibit was one exotic animal. Not a zoo.

Five years later Bostonians got another thrilling creature exhibition: a camel.

Whoo-oo! TWO animals!

People in America had to wait more than a century and a half for an entire zoo to open; in 1874 the Philadelphia Zoo opened and invited visitors to view more than 800 animals. 

By the way...

The African lion exhibited in Boston in 1716 was exotic because it came from far, far away. But did you know that there used to be an animal called an American lion?

I'm not talking about that fearsome modern creature we sometimes call the mountain lion—but that we more commonly call a puma, panther, or cougar. I'm talking about an animal that lived for thousands of years in North and South America—a huge member of the cat family that was 25% larger than the modern African lion—a creature that went extinct around 10 to 11 thousand years ago: the American lion.

America's second “exotic creature,” the camel, also used to live here and actually first evolved here. For thousands of years various species of camels lived in the Americas. Some migrated over a land bridge to Asia, and all the camels that stayed in the Americas went extinct about 10 to 11 thousand years ago.

If you are wondering why both American lions and American camels died out about 10 to 11 thousand years ago, you should know that the saber-tooth cat, mammoth, mastodon, giant sloth, American horse, giant beaver, and other large mammals also died out at the same time. Scientists aren't sure why so many megafauna (large animal) species went extinct during the late Pleisotcene, but climate change, habitat shifts, and human hunting probably all played a role.

Did you know...?

Some scientists have suggested “rewilding” America by bringing over large mammals such as African lions, cheetahs, camels, and elephants to the North American prairies and allowing them to freely roam in “ecological history parks” or “Pleistocene parks.” This would restore some of the ecological balance that humans have disrupted by removing so many large species—especially predators—and it would be a second safeguard for today's endangered animals (zoos are the first safeguard). You can read about rewilding here and here.

Also on this date:

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