CHICAGO — A state lawmaker is pushing legislation that would ban the sale of lion meat and the slaughter of the animals in Illinois, saying he knows of at least two places where he believes the meat is sold.
Lion burgers are practically nonexistent on restaurant menus, so the measure left some political observers baffled as to how the issue surfaced at a time when Illinois is facing the worst public pension shortfall in the nation and also debating gun control and other weighty issues.
Rep. Luis Arroyo, the Chicago Democrat sponsoring the measure, would not identify the two places where he thinks lion meat is for sale, but he said slaughtering the animal for food is inhumane and needs to be outlawed.
"Those are zoo animals," he told the Chicago Sun-Times. "... There's other meats we can eat besides the lions."
The House bill would establish penalties of up to one year in jail and a fine of $2,500 for offenders.
Arroyo's bill could be made obsolete as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering protecting African lions under the Endangered Species Act, primarily to stop the trade in hunting trophies and lion skins. But that would also prevent the sale of lion meat, which is, for now, legal.
Critics questioned the wisdom of putting the matter before a Legislature already grappling with enormous challenges, like the crushing $96.7 billion in unfunded liabilities in the public pension system and the state's overall budget problems.
"Legislators have bigger issues to tame than the commercialization of lion meat," said Kristina Rasmussen, vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute.
"Most people would never even conceive of eating lion meat," she said. "... If this is a problem — and I'm not convinced that it is — surely it can be solved by civil action and community consensus and open debate. Do we have to rush in with a law, especially when we have so many other problems right in front of our face?"
A restaurant owner in Phoenix generated controversy in 2010 by putting lion burgers on his menu in celebration of the World Cup that summer in South Africa. Animal rights activists picketed the restaurant and some in South Africa expressed shock as well, because lion meat is shunned in that country.
The restaurant's supplier said it purchased the meat from a Chicago-area company called Czimer's Game & Seafood in Homer Glen, Ill. Owner Richard Czimer was sentenced to six months in prison in 2003 for illegally buying and selling tiger and leopard meat.
Calls to the company went unanswered Saturday.
Arroyo's bill is being reviewed by the House Agriculture and Conservation Committee.