Watched by camera-toting journalists, in January 2002 a very remarkable lioness named Lea arrived at the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve near Johannesburg, South Africa, after a 30-hour journey from Rome, Italy.1
Why ‘very remarkable’? Because this seven-year-old female feline did not fit the ‘ferocious carnivore’ lion stereotype, having been raised not on meat but on a diet of potatoes, green vegetables and cheesy pasta. Lea had in fact been nicknamed the ‘Spaghetti Kid’ after her favourite food, spaghetti, which she especially loved flavoured with Neapolitan sauce.2,3 And now the caretakers at her new home in South Africa were facing ‘the real challenge’, for the first time in Lea’s life, of introducing this ‘Spaghetti Kid’ to meat and to the companionship of other lions.
Photos by Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve
Antonio introduces his beloved Lea to her new home—his dream to find her a new home has finally become reality. But the seven-year-old lioness must now face the challenge of learning to eat meat—for the first time in her life.
Lea’s mother lived in Naples Zoo, which had a policy of selling the cubs born there. So at the tender age of six weeks, Lea found herself in the Italian village of Nettuno in the care of a man called Antonio Vincenzo. The two seemed inseparable; Lea slept on Antonio’s bed at night and accompanied him everywhere by day, without any leash or restraint—across busy streets, among crowds and even to the local supermarket. No wonder that ‘everyone in Nettuno knew Lea’, and of her diet of spaghetti, vegetables and tomato sauce.4
But when Lea was a year old, Antonio’s work circumstances changed and he could no longer look after his ‘pet’ at his home. A zoo on the outskirts of Rome agreed to accommodate Lea, provided Antonio supplied the zoo with her food. And so Lea continued to grow on her diet of pasta, ricotta cheese and vegetables. But, seeing her confined to a 4 m x 4 m (13 ft x 13 ft) concrete enclosure at the zoo, Antonio resolved to find Lea better living quarters. (Antonio visited her every Sunday—the lioness would whimper and cry when it was time for him to leave.2)
After years of fruitless searching,5 eventually the way was clear for Lea to be sent to South Africa—Antonio would accompany her on the journey and remain at Lea’s new home for a few weeks to help her adapt.
Given Lea’s distinctive nickname (‘Spaghetti Lioness’) and the publicity associated with her move to South Africa, many people got to hear of what Lea had eaten for the first seven years of her life—and were amazed. One journalist wrote: ‘Notwithstanding her strange diet she thrived.’ This lioness had not only survived (for seven years), but thrived on a meatless diet from infancy.
But Lea is not unique in recent (lion) history in having successfully been raised on a meatless diet. A renowned vegetarian lioness in the USA did not eat meat at all during her entire lifetime.6,7 And many other animals normally regarded as being meat-eaters (e.g. dogs8, vultures9), are known to be able to live on meatless diets.
To understand such a situation, we need to go back into history. But which history is correct—evolution or the Bible? It just doesn’t make sense if one has an evolutionary perspective—that this is a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world, and that animals with sharp teeth, claws and beaks evolved over millions of years to be meat-eaters.
In contrast, the Bible tells us that felines were originally created vegetarian (Genesis 1:30) and it also speaks of a time when ‘the lion will eat straw like the ox’ (Isaiah 11:7, 65:25). So, from the Bible, vegetarian ‘carnivores’ make much more sense.10
Kalahri Raptor Centre
Lea in her Italian zoo enclosure.
As Lea emerged from her transportation crate at her grassy new home, a crowd of camera-clicking reporters awaited the photo opportunity: Lea devouring her first South African meal of pasta, cheese and sliced tomato.
But Lea took one sniff and walked away.
‘No, no, no,’ said Antonio. ‘It has to be Italian pasta and cheese, and tomato sauce—never cut tomatoes.’
As they say—you can travel the world, but there’s nothing like good old home cooking!
Post Script: Lea’s new caretakers at The Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve have advised us that she was weaned from spaghetti in one week and now has ‘absolutely no problem’ with fresh red meat, which is fed to her—she does not hunt.