SAN DIEGO — The African lion is an animal of majesty and wonder. He is capable of arousing fear and curiosity, even worship. He is celebrated by animal rights groups, deified in legend and literature.
He is also being served in a San Diego restaurant.
Judson's Restaurant and Galley Bar, a posh eatery on Sports Arena Boulevard, opened seven months ago, specializing in a "wild game" menu. Camel, antelope, buffalo, reindeer, venison, alligator and rattlesnake are some of the meats offered by Judson's and its executive chef, Ernest A. Wally.
Just last week, Judson's served lion, and the roaring hasn't stopped yet.
"People say, 'You ordered a lion to be killed!' What am I," said Wally, "a Mafioso? One woman called and said she was gonna picket. Is she gonna picket Burger King for killing cows?
"Hey, I don't mind the controversy. It's good for business. I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, but if it's legal, let me do it. Don't restrict me and the freedom I have."
Wally admitted getting phone calls and letters in a controversy fed entirely by "word of mouth." Clients, even regulars, come in, notice lion on the menu "and immediately get mad," he said. "But it's their problem, not mine."
In a city known for a zoo that prides itself on the preservation and restoration of endangered and protected species, Wally's action seems bold and highly ironic. A tall, burly Austrian with a walrus-like mustache and a mop of curly hair, he prides himself on being a character, a maverick, an eccentric. Judson's is owned by local entrepreneur Mark Grosvenor, who has given Wally his full authority.
Irony and emotions are not the only forces at work in the Judson's lion-meat debate. Neither lion--nor any other beast on the Judson's menu--is an endangered species. Most are "protected" under Appendix 2 of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). "Protected" is a lower classification than "endangered."
CITES is an international treaty to which the United States and about 90 other countries subscribe, according to Mel Holt, a special agent in the San Diego office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His agency oversees the importation of foreign game.
Importers who carry the proper export papers--from "host" countries such as Kenya-- can , Holt said, legally breed and sell certain species of African game.
Although it may not be illegal to serve such game on platters in American restaurants, it remains "highly difficult," if not impossible, Holt said, to trace the origins of the meat and sources who provide it.
As an example, Judson's bought meat (including lion, antelope and alligator) from a Denver wholesaler. That person says he bought the meat from an importer, whose name he can't remember. Where that person got the meat is merely a source of speculation, according to Judson's and the Denver wholesaler.
Holt suspects that it came from a private game farm somewhere in this country--a conclusion supported by the wholesaler, who nevertheless isn't sure.
Holt finds "disturbing" what he calls the trend of wild-game restaurants, springing up in the United States like herds of excited antelope. It is the trend--and not so much the nebulous questions of legality--that worries Holt and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"As long as this is a faddish thing, we in the wildlife community are very concerned," he said. "With supply and demand, a big black market could be the result. The potential for massive illegality isn't so difficult to see."
Holt said his office would look into the matter of where Judson's got its meat--that is, its original, direct source.
For chef Wally's part, he notes that the lion--51 pounds of leg, 27 pounds of loin, at $11.50 a pound--was bought from Dale's Exotic Game Meats, the Denver-based firm specializing in "wholesale wild game." Jim Thomas, a Carlsbad-based representative with the firm, said, "We bought the lion out of Chicago or New York, but I don't remember the name of the agency.
"I don't know where it came from. It probably came from a private game farm, but we buy from different sources. These things are raised and killed under controlled regulations--that's the only way we can sell it. In other words, a guy just can't drag a camel in off the street."
"Roasted saddle of camel" is one of the items on Judson's menu and along with lion was served at the restaurant's Friday night "Valentine's party," where entrees of both went for $23.50.
Thomas said Dale's Exotic Game Meats would continue to supply Wally with lion "for as long as he wants it," but he continued to be vague, even evasive, about where it came from and how it got here.
"The (name of the) game preserve--I can't tell you, no way," he said. "The meat came from an agency back East. I'm not trying to hide it. I just don't know the name of it."