Why Lions have Brain Damage

Architecture is incapable of housing animals that roam large distances in a sustainable manner, and this is illustrated through various captive megafauna and their respective enclosures. Predators, such as the African Lion, are unable to hunt prey despite that behaviour being deeply imbedded in their DNA.


Melbourne Zoo’s ‘Lion Gorge’ (2014) by OLA Architects Studio, endeavours to humanely exhibit the animals by imitating their native environment, an African Savannah. The architects replicate the landscape by including a mixture of long and short grasses with various rocks emerging from the ground and having a watering hole off to one site of the enclosure.


Image One: a segment of the lion’s enclosure


The exhibit allows the lions to use a variety of their natural instincts in an unnatural setting by effortlessly transitioning from a watering hole to a rocky outcrop to a ‘vast’ area of green grass. Lions are able to perform species-appropriate behaviours such as resting, walking, grooming and playing in an array of environments (Association of Zoos and Aquariums).




Unfortunately, OLA Architects Studio’s attempt to display the megafauna humanely has failed. Outside of captivity, lions roam approximately ten kilometres a day (San Diego Zoo). In captivity, the ‘ethical’ amount of area suggested for each lion is 37 meters of space to roam (Government of Scotland, 2019). The architects for ‘Lion Gorge’ provide 330 meters for each of the zoo’s three lions (Urban Initiatives, 2014), however this is still drastically under what the animals traverse on a daily basis.


Image Two: Melbourne Zoo’s lion enclosure (highlighted), roughly 1000m2 in total

The lack of space provided makes it impossible for lions to utilise their innate instincts of stalking and hunting prey. The animals usually prey upon medium to large sized ungulates, such as wildebeest, zebras and buffalos (Hillerman, 2021). Lions will stalk their prey for up to five kilometres and then pounce, charging at a speed of 60 kilometres an hour (Government of Scotland, 2019), before striking and killing the animal.

The inadequate space afforded to the captive carnivores leads to the animals being fed chunks of red meat, eliminating the biological instincts of stalking and hunting entirely. The abolition of these instincts has also caused an unusual phenomenon in captive lions, contributed to the lack of necessary vitamins the animals aren’t receiving, found in the internal organs of animals they would eat outside of captivity (Macsween, 2014).


This occurrence usually presents itself in juvenile lions and affects over 40% of captive lions versus 4% of the wild population (Saragusty, 2014). Lions born in captivity will develop a malformation of the foramen magnum, the hole at the base of the skull which the spinal cord passes through (Saragusty, 2014). The deformity narrows this hole, causing pressure on the spinal cord and results in neurological abnormalities and death.


Image Three: A skull of a wild adult lion with a normal opening of the foramen magnum
Image Four: Abnormal bone growth protruding from the roof of the foramen magnum (asterisk) in a captive, young adult lion










The obvious solution would be to provide more space for the lions, allowing them to hunt live prey. However, the visitors’ expectation of the lions to be displayed at all times and in close proximity dissuades this solution to be implemented in future enclosures. ‘Lion Gorge’ caters to the audience by featuring floor to ceiling windows that wrap around the enclosure (Viridian Glass, 2016), permitting the zoo’s guests to observe the lions closely at every angle.


Image Five: the expansive viewing area allows for the public to be up close and personal with the lions

Before architects can drastically alter the typology of zoo enclosures, zoo directors must change the way they inform the public about these creatures. A traditional zoo is unable to ethically house the lions, sacrificing their needs for the visitors’ wants. Transforming the stereotypical zoo into a different archetype entirely would allow a mutually beneficial relationship between lions and humans to occur, and therefore is the only option for the future of existence of zoos.







Image One: “Lion Gorge Officially Opens.” 2014 https://www.urbaninitiatives.com.au/news/landscape-industry-news/lion-gorge-officially-opens/

Image Two: “Plan of Phase One.” 2014. https://www.urbaninitiatives.com.au/news/landscape-industry-news/melbourne-zoo-predators-precinct-set-for-a-major-upgrade/

Image Three: “Normal Foramen Magnum in an Adult Lion.” 2013. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0094527

Image Four: Kouris, Tom. “Abnormal Growth of the Foramen Magnum.” 2013. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0094527.g002

Image Five: “Viridian Glass creates amazing experience for visitors to Melbourne Zoo.” 2014. https://www.viridianglass.com/blog/melbourne-zoo-s-lion-gorge-creates-amazing-experience-for-visitors/





Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “Lion Care Manual.” Accessed April 12, 2021. https://bigcatrescue.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/LionCareAZA.pdf

Government of Scotland. “Dangerous Wild Animals: Species Guidance- Lions and Tigers.” Published January 7, 2019. https://www.gov.scot/publications/dangerous-wild-animals-species-guidance/pages/lions-tigers/

Hillerman, Annemarie. “Husbandry Guidelines for African Lion.” Accessed April 12, 2021. https://aszk.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Mammals.-AfricanLion-2010AH.pdf

Macsween, Chris. “Why lions should not be kept in captivity.” Published April 15, 2014. https://lionaid.org/news/2014/04/why-lions-should-not-be-kept-in-captivity.htm#:~:text=In%20summary%2C%20lions%20in%20captivity,likely%20to%20cauca%20neurological%20complications.

San Diego Zoo. “Lion.” Accessed April 13, 2021. https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/lion

Saragusty, Joseph., Shavit-Meyrav, Anat., Yamaguchi, Nobuyuki., Nadler, Rona., Bdolah-Abram, Tali., Gibeon, Laura., Hildebrandt, Thomas B., and Shamir, Merav H. “Comparative Skull Analysis Suggests Species-Specific Captivity-Related Malformation in Lions.” PLOSone (2014). DOI: doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0094527

Urban Initiatives. “Melbourne Zoo Predators Precinct set for a major upgrade.” March 14, 2014. https://www.urbaninitiatives.com.au/news/landscape-industry-news/melbourne-zoo-predators-precinct-set-for-a-major-upgrade/

Viridian Glass. “Case Study: Get Up Close and Personal with Lions at Melbourne Zoo.” Accessed April 12, 2021. https://www.viridianglass.com/inspiration/case-studies/up-close-personal-melbourne-zoo/

Viridian Glass. “Melbourne Zoo’s Lion Gorge creates amazing experience for visitors.” Published March 31, 2016. https://www.viridianglass.com/blog/melbourne-zoo-s-lion-gorge-creates-amazing-experience-for-visitors/