Photo: Jonathan Pavlica
There are at least 20,000 lions left in the wild, so they still out-number captive lions — but not by much!
By one important measure — breeding — lions fare very well in zoos. Most zoo lions have been sterilized or fitted with contraceptives to prevent a baby boom. Otherwise, zoo lions don't really have enough to do, and they often get obese because of a lack of exercise. If their enclosure were bigger and they were allowed to catch dinner — and also to fail most of the time — their lives would be much better.
Lions don't go for catnip, alas. It seems to be something that only the smaller cats get excited about. But besides the fact that lions are amazingly sociable and do so many things together, you are always struck by their basic "catness" — they rub their heads together just like a cat may rub your ankle and they make a funny face when they sniff something odd. And the moms carry their cubs just like cats carry their kittens. To me lions are cutest when they flop on top of each other — they are very tactile and affectionate, but they also weigh a ton, so the lion at the bottom of the pile may have to struggle to get from under the scrum.
I've handled hundreds of lions over the years, and I was never worried — because they had always been immobilized so that we could take a blood sample or attach a radio collar. We would sometimes dart one lion in the middle of a large group then drive our LandRover between the immobilized lion and its pridemates, operate quickly with the syringe and collar, and then hop back in the car. But I also interviewed a number of families whose loved-ones were eaten by lions, so I would never encourage ANYONE from getting too close to a wild lion.