The Edinburgh pet shop owners who kept a lion and walked it on a leash through Tollcross

With its very special four-pawed attraction, this Tollcross pet shop must have done a roaring trade.

Tuesday, 5th November 2019, 6:25 am

In the 1970s, the Tropical Fish Centre at Lochrin Place featured a far broader menagerie of creatures than its name may suggest.

Aquatic stock was not in short supply, nor was the usual roster of budgies, canaries and cockatiels alongside hamsters, mice, gerbils and guinea pigs.

There were, however, a few rather more exotic beasts on display at the Tollcross store - the star of the show being a young male lion named Jason.

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Richard and Meg Houston kept Jason the lion at their Tollcross pet shop for around a year until the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was passed in 1976. Pictures: Submitted
Richard and Meg Houston kept Jason the lion at their Tollcross pet shop for around a year until the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was passed in 1976. Pictures: Submitted

Former pet shop owners Meg and Richard Houston made headline news when they brought the lion to urban Edinburgh around 1975. The cub was kept in a cage in the front 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.

But the Houstons, who are now in their seventies and still live in Edinburgh, say their decision to keep a lion was purely a moral one.

"We had some friends down in London," Meg Houston told the Evening News, "They had a small zoo in their back garden, including two lion cubs.

Lochrin Place in Tollcross where pet store The Tropical Fish Centre was based in the 1970s. Picture: Google Street View

"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."

The young lion lived in the Capital for around a year, by which time he had grown a full mane.

Jason's popularity was such, that people would flock to the pet shop from all around Edinburgh and the Lothians just to see him. He could even be seen going out for walks around Tollcross on a leash - until the local constabulary caught wind of it.

Meg explained: "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."

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."

And the big cat had a supply of cream to match its stature - 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.

"My fellow students and I would often stop by the pet shop on the way to school," recalled Craig, "The pets there started to get ever-more exotic and included lizards and small monkeys.

"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 the the growing lion seemed very happy with its lot."

Monkey business, snakes and go-go dancers

Jason was not the only exotic animal the Houstons kept, though Meg admits she has "mixed memories" over the lewd conduct of one of the shop's monkeys.

She recalled: "We had various monkeys, one was called Nelson, who was a male macaque - I've never seen parents grab their child out of a shop so quickly.

"Nelson had a certain habit.. Kids would ask their mum and dad what the monkey was doing and there would be a quick exit.

"We also used to sell snakes to local go-go dancers and a former Miss Scotland used to come in and buy frozen mice from us to feed her snake."

Despite growing very fond of Jason, Meg and Richard were forced to wave farewell to the young lion after the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was passed in 1976.

A new home was subsequently found for the young lion down in Oxfordshire.

And although public views on keeping wild animals have changed substantially over the decades, Meg insists she has never regretted taking Jason in.

"We saved his life in my view," says Meg, "This gorgeous little animal was going to be put down and we took him to live with us instead.

"He was born in captivity, lived all his life in captivity, and was perfectly happy when he was with us."

Other Edinburgh lions

Jason the lion was not the only big cat being kept outwith the confines of Edinburgh Zoo in the years before the wild animals act.

Another city pet shop, on Rose Street, is also said to have had a lion in the 1970s, while Leith pub the King's Wark reportedly kept a caged puma until it went on the rampage one night and attacked drinkers.

And, during the same era, a court case raged over one woman's right to keep a lion chained in her basement at Windsor Street just off London Road. The woman had allegedly caused a panic one day after attempting to walk her big cat down nearby Leith Walk.

Local by-laws of the time prevented the keeping of chickens and hens, but, until 1976, there was nothing in place to prevent anyone from keeping a large wild animal.

Animal rights charity Born Free mapped the number of big cats and other animals deemed unsafe as pets in 2018.

Their survey revealed 4798 dangerous wild animals, including lions, tigers, puma and venomous snakes, continue to be kept privately in Britain, of which around 10 per cent are living in Scotland.