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Turning Lions Into Lovers

Chilling The Big Cats

Beautiful large African Lion laying down with trees in the background

By John Salak –

Lions are magnificent, noble and ferrous creatures. Cuddly and calm, however, are not attributes that come to mind when thinking about these big cats. That could change soon—somewhat. Researchers at a wildlife reserve in Dinokeng, South Africa have experimented with a nasal application of the “love hormone” oxytocin and it is pretty much-turning lions to calm cats.

It’s a cute idea but spraying a lion in the nose is not for the weak of heart. After all, they aren’t stranger friendly. Plus, they are apex predators, territorial and can pretty much take apart a person or a pending meal with the swipe of one of their big paws. All this makes safeguarding lions in the wild and on reserves challenging, particularly as the natural habitat of these big cats continues to be reduced and they come increasingly into contact with people.  

These converging factors led animal biologist Craig Packer and neuroscientist Sarah Heilbronner from the University of Minnesota to determine whether an oxytocin spray might tame these beasts so they can be better managed without harmful confrontations with locals. Their approach called for using hunks of raw meat to lure lions up to a fence where they could be blasted in the spout with a spray—via a tool that looked like an antique perfume bottle.

“By spraying the oxytocin directly up the nose, we know it can travel up the trigeminal nerve and the olfactory nerve straight up into the brain.” reported first author Jessica Burkhart. “Otherwise, the blood-brain barrier could filter it out.” Apparently, the approach worked at least with 23 lions who ventured up to the fence to feast on the offered meat.

They definitely became more tolerant of other lions in their space and seemed less vigilant towards intruders. “You can see their features soften immediately, they go from wrinkled and aggressive to this totally calm demeanor,” says Burkhart. “They totally chill out. It’s amazing.”

The researchers judged social tolerance by measuring—from a distance—how close a sprayed lion let other lions approach a toy in its possession. “After the lions were treated with oxytocin, and we gave them their favorite pumpkin toy to play with, we saw the average distance between them drop from about 7 meters with no treatment to about 3.5 meters after oxytocin was administered,” she explained.

Of course, these big cats weren’t totally chill. When it came to food, they were just as possessive whether they were sprayed or not. Ultimately, Burkhart explained this treatment could be particularly helpful as cities in Africa sprawl and encroach upon lions’ territory and some of these animals are transported to private fenced reserves where they are introduced to other lions.

“Currently we’re working on introductions of animals who have been rescued from circuses or overseas or war zones that now live in sanctuaries,” Burkhart explained. “The hope is that this will translate to animals being relocated in the wild, helping them to become more inclined to their new social environment so they’re more curious and less fearful, leading to more successful bonding.”

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