Arizona restaurant's African lion burgers stir protest
PHOENIX — A restaurant owner who put lion burgers on the menu in honor of the World Cup has felt a roar of anger from outraged animal rights activists.
Cameron Selogie, owner of the Il Vinaio restaurant in Mesa, served burgers made with African lion this week as a nod to the tournament in South Africa. Reservations sold out, with a waiting list 100 long.
But the burgers also attracted international attention and the scorn of animal rights activists, who picketed outside the restaurant. Selogie has even received some death threats.
And now Selogie himself is questioning whether the meat was fair game.
"I was led to believe they were not hunted, they were not shot, they were not abused," Selogie said. "I feel I was misled by this."
Serving African lion meat is perfectly legal, said Michael Herndon, a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration. Game meat such as lion can be sold as long as the species isn't endangered, and the CDC hasn't prohibited importation of African lion, although its Asiatic cousin is on the endangered list.
Selogie described the meat as tasting slightly "gamey," almost like a savory beef jerky. About 20 percent of Il Vinaio's patty is ground beef, because the lion meat was so lean, Selogie said.
Selogie purchased 10 pounds of ground lion meat -- enough for 40 burgers -- from Phoenix-based Gourmet Imports Wild Game, a distributor that Selogie has worked with before and found to be reputable.
"Everything's always been on the up and up," Selogie said. "So I felt comfortable with what he told me."
Gourmet Imports, run by Rick Worrilow, supplies everything from alligator to zebra for customers. Worrilow said he purchased the meat from a shipper in Illinois, Czimer's Game & Sea Foods. The owner, Richard Czimer, told him the meat is inspected by the USDA and comes from a free-range farm -- something Worrilow, a vegetarian, considered important.
But USDA spokesman Brian Mabry said in an e-mail that lion meat is not inspected by the agency, and the agency would look into whether there was a misuse of the USDA mark.
Phone calls to Czimer by The Associated Press were not immediately returned.
Czimer was sentenced to six months in prison in 2003 for illegally buying and selling tiger and leopard meat. In an interview with CNNMoney.com, he said he gets his lion meat from another man who runs a skinning business, whom he refused to name.
In South Africa, lion meat is shunned and animal welfare activists expressed shock at the burgers served in Phoenix. Mike Cadman, a wildlife research journalist based in Johannesburg, describes the eating of lion meat as a "bizarre craze" practiced by those who want to try it because it is not illegal.
"It's strange but legal. If something is legal, nothing is stopping people from doing it or eating it. It's more about its peculiarity," says Cadman.
Cadman says lions in Africa are not hunted for eating but for trophy purposes -- where the lion head is stuffed and its skin is cleaned and kept as a trophy. He says Africa has between 25,000 and 30,000 lions and those are threatened mostly by sport hunters and poachers.
Ashley Byrne, a spokeswoman for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said most lion meat served in restaurants comes from old zoo and circus lions. Regardless of where Selogie's meat came from, the lions "suffered terrifying deaths," Byrne said.
"Anybody who orders a lion burger is supporting cruelty to animals," she said.
Michele Pickover, spokeswoman for Animal Rights Africa, said she was concerned that an appetite for lion in the United States would increase poaching.
"In the United States it's about trying anything to make money," says Pickover. "That's not acceptable here in Africa. Eating predators is shunned here. Predator eating predator is rare. Even lions eating other predators is uncommon."
Selogie disclosed to his customers that there is some question about the meat, but said he feels that he acted in good faith and the entire situation has been overblown.
"I really, honestly believe that African lions were not shot. I really believe this isn't endangering the species," he said. "If I'm proven wrong, I'll probably feel a lot worse for it, but I've been led to believe that this is all legal, and it's such a small amount that we got."
-- Michelle Price, Associated Press
Photo: A lion-meat patty cooks at Il Vinaio on June 24. Credit: Matt York / Associated Press