By Kat Kinsman, CNN
(CNN) — Dying to try lion? If you live in Illinois, you’d better get your fix quickly before proposed legislation would make the “mane” course a Class A misdemeanor.
Illinois State Representative Luis Arroyo proposed HB 2991 to the state’s General Assembly last month. If the Lion Meat Act passes, Illinois will become the first U.S. state to forbid lion slaughter, or for any person to possess, breed, import, export, buy or sell lions for the purpose of slaughter – making it illegal to serve or sell lion meat at restaurant, hotel or other commercial establishment. Offenders would face a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500 if convicted.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, lions are not currently protected as an endangered cat in the U.S., and there are no laws prohibiting its sale. It also falls outside the USDA’s inspection parameters and under those of the Food and Drug Administration, which categorizes lion as a “game meat.”
Still, the king of the jungle doesn’t exactly abound on American menus, so why is Arroyo mounting an attack?
“What I do know is there are two local companies in Illinois that are supposedly selling lion meat. The economy is not that bad that we have to eat lion’s meat,” Arroyo told CNN. “I have always considered lions to be in the zoo or the king of the jungle, not for consumption. Do we consume elephants too, where do we stop?”
He continued, “I want to make it illegal to butcher or sell it because if you are in the jungle and you see a lion and he’s coming at you, you might as well shoot him because he might eat you, but we are not in the jungle, so I prefer not to consume them.”
Arroyo, who did not specify the names of the companies, says he has never tried lion meat and has no plans to taste it anytime soon. But not all diners share his pride in the noble cat.
In 2012, Wichita, Kansas restaurant Taste and See came under fire when chef Jason Febres added lion meat (which he claimed was sourced from a U.S. farm) to a menu featuring exotic meats. That item was canceled after a roar of protest from consumers, but the restaurant continues to serve non-traditional animals. A “dining experience” special for March 12 includes iguana, alpaca and python.
Two year prior, Il Vinaio restaurant in Mesa, Arizona faced a bomb threat after offering a “lion burger” (ground lion meat mixed with other animals) in honor of the 2010 FIFA World Cup’s South African location. The proprietors were told that the animals were raised on a USDA-regulated free-range farm in Illinois, but according to a CNN Money report, the meat arrived in a box from Czimer’s Game & Sea Foods – a butcher shop in Homer Glen, Illinois.
The proprietor, Richard Czimer, has been cited for food-related offenses from bear meat mislabeling and insufficient temperature regulation of exotic meat slim jims to illegally buying and selling tiger and leopard meat — which led to a six-month prison sentence in 2003. Czimer told CNN Money that the lion meat (which he mixed with tiger, mountain lion and liger meat) was a byproduct from another man’s skinning operation and he had opted not to follow the supply chain any further.
Family-owned Eickman’s Processing Co., which opened in Seward, Illinois in 1953, has processed exotic meat including black bear and lion, but proprietor Tom Eickman told Grub Street Chicago the lion meat that come to them was all farm-raised, mostly from Wisconsin and Minnesota. Eickman’s is one of 16 slaughter facilities in Illinois to process exotic meat, and it is the only one that intakes lions.
While African lion (loin roast and steaks $19.95 per pound, ribs $9.98 per pound) is currently listed as “not available” on Czimer’s website (though yak and alpaca are ready for purchase), in 2010 chef Dave Arnold of the International Culinary Center purchased several exotic meats including beaver, yak and lion from the distributor and chronicled his kitchen process on CookingIssues.com.
“Bears and lions are raised by big game dealers for circuses, exotic pet enthusiasts and zoos,” Arnold wrote. “When those animals get too old to breed or their owners discard them they are slaughtered for their fur and the meat goes to Czimer’s. Sad but true. If the animals are being slaughtered, it is a sin not to eat them.”
Arnold found the meat to be tough and pork-like in flavor, but “with a special savory twang” and in the final assessment, decided he’d stick with the easier-to-find swine. Arnold later told DNA Info that after learning of the distributor’s previous dealings, he would not order from Czimer’s again.
Arroyo also cited the species’ potential extinction as an impetus for the bill. A recent study published in Biodiversity and Conservation and funded in part by National Geographic Big Cats Initiative found that only 32,000 lions remain out of the 100,000 that were roaming Africa in the 1960s.
Wild animal advocacy group Born Free USA embarked on an undercover investigation into the lion meat trade in 2011, and as part of their campaign to curb the trade, have petitioned to have African lion listed as “endangered” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the petition presented substantial evidence indicating that listing this subspecies may be warranted, but has yet to issue a finding.
Born Free USA, executive vice president Adam Roberts issued a statement applauding Arroyo for introducing this bill, saying, “The lion meat industry is fraught with regulatory pitfalls and shortcomings that place people and lions at risk. People who are interested in lions should focus on ways to protect them in the wild where they belong, not ‘farm’ them for their cubs and meat for cheap thrills, and restaurant gimmicks.”
Not every Illinois resident was enthused by Arroyo’s use of his platform. Illinois Policy Institute executive vice president Kristina Rasmussen tweeted a link to the bill with the commentary, “Because Illinois has no more pressing problem then lion meat: introducing the Lion Meat Act” and later that, “Legislators have bigger issues to tame than the commercialization of lion meat.”
— Additional reporting by Carma Hassan, CNN