People Getting Too Close to Lions at the Zoo is Not a New Phenomenon

Illustration for article titled People Getting Too Close to Lions at the Zoo is Not a New Phenomenon

Every few years, we see cases of people going into enclosures at zoos, wanting to "make friends" with animals. It always ends badly. And, as it turns out, this is not a new phenomenon.

Even as habitats are shrinking and species are disappearing, the world never goes more than a few years without an attack by a big cat. This is not because people are encroaching on lion habitats. It's because somewhere in the world, someone decides to get into the lion enclosure at the local zoo. If they don't get in themselves, they decide to put their arms inside the enclosure to take a picture of, or pet, the lion.

Some people claim that these things happen because of the Disney-fication of animals, or the fact that we are no longer in touch with nature. Actually, it's something people have always done, as long as the general public has had access to large wild animals in enclosures.


Possibly the first mauling of a very stupid member of the public happened all the way back in 1686, in London. The Tower of London housed, along with various terrified inmates, a surprisingly large menagerie. The animals were tended by the Gills - a family who passed the keeping of the animals from father to son for over a century. And this particular incident might be why William Gill was the last Gill to work as a keeper.

William Gill had a mistress named Mary Jenkinson. Even then, people were fascinated by big cats, and the lion house was one of the most popular attractions. Mary got a group of her friends into the lion house, and showed off how close she could get to the lions. Then, she decided that just being close wasn't enough. She wanted to stroke the nearest lion's paw.

It doesn't take much imagination to guess what happened next. The lion grabbed her arm in its mouth and tore at it. Several attendants came running, and shoved lit torches at it. It still seemed reluctant to let Jenkinson go. By the time it did, her arm was so badly damaged that it had to be amputated. She died soon afterwards, either because of the injuries from the lion, or because she had her arm amputated in the 1600s.

Top Image: William Warby

[Via Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London, The A-Z of Curious London, A Menagerie of Royal Beasts.]


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It's because some people are dumbasses. Wild animal attacks happen even when the animal you've decided to bother is one of those "safe" wild animals, like a squirrel or deer.

Especially with wild animals in captivity, it's easy to slip into a sense of complacency, whether through anthropomorphizing ("This animal would never hurt me - we've known each other too long") or carelessness ("It'll take too long to do this one extra safety measure - nothing has happened to me before").