Edinburgh in the 1970s: Looking back on the lion who was walked on a lead by Edinburgh pet shop owners
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In the 1970s, the Tropical Fish Centre at Lochrin Place featured a far broader menagerie of creatures than its name may suggest. Whilst aquatic stock was not short of supply and all creatures big and small were available, a rather more exotic beast was by far the showcase display – a young male lion named Jason.
Former pet shop owners Meg and Richard Houston were the city’s spotlight attraction as they made headline news when they brought the lion to urban Edinburgh around 1975. The young cub was kept in a cage at the foot of the shop. Before the law changed in 1976, it wasn't unheard of for Britain's wealthy to take their pet lion, tiger or cheetah for a stroll – the ultimate pets of choice among the elite.
The Houstons told the Scotsman their decision to keep the lion was a ‘purely moral one’. Meg Houston said: "We had some friends down in London,who had a small zoo in their back garden, including two lion cubs. The cubs were going to be put down and my husband couldn't bear it, so we told them we would take one of them in with us."
After living in the Capital for around a year, the young lion grew a name for himself as Jason's popularity heightened and became Edinburgh’s feline celebrity. People right across Edinburgh and the Lothians would make it their mission to go to the pet shop just to see the lion. This local beloved four-legged superstar was even spotted going for walks on a leash through Tollcross, until the local constabulary caught wind of it.
Meg told the Scotsman: "One day, when Jason was around two or three months old, the police called and told my husband we could no longer walk him on the pavements. He was getting too big and it had to be on private ground only, so we'd exercise him in a friend's garden instead. The locals loved him and of course a lot of people would come in especially. Wee old ladies would come in with a quarter pound of mince and hand feed him through the bars."
An Edinburgh local, May Moss, knew Meg Houston from her school days and often took her children in to visit the lion. She said: "We used to take the kids in, it was great, although, of course, a bit mad at the same time. It was in the front of the shop and the cage took up almost the whole shop space. Given the circumstances, the lion was very well looked after. My mum used to see the lion being taken out for a walk every night."
The friendly giant also had an endless supply of cream to match its stature as Murchie's Edinburgh dairy was located on the same street. May added: "They could walk this lion like a big dog down one end of Lochrin Place to the other, passing by Murchie's creamery. Some people have even said they saw the lion being taken for a walk in Bruntsfield Links and the Meadows." Craig Morrison, a schoolboy at James Gillespies at the time, concurred with May's take on the lion being well-cared for.
Eventually the lion began to grow too big for the width of his cage, and then outgrew the shop's premises. Meg said: "It was a real shock when one day there was a small lion there in a cage. Over the coming months, this cage grew with the cub until it took up most of the shop. This all sounds remarkably cruel by today's standards, but I must say that the growing lion seemed very happy with its lot."
Whilst Jason’s owners, Meg and Richard became very fond of him, they were forced to wave farewell to their adored lion after the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was passed in 1976. A new home was subsequently found for young Jason down in Oxfordshire.