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When Men Become Meat

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Male lions in zoos typically sport impressive manes, but the two that in 1898 killed and ate 140 construction workers at East Africa's Tsavo River were maneless--as are many dominant males in the wild, says Field Museum zoologist Bruce Patterson. After terrorizing the populace for nine months and earning a reputation as evil incarnate, the Tsavo pair were bagged by British army colonel John Henry Patterson (no relation to Bruce). The events inspired a 1996 Hollywood feature, The Ghost and the Darkness, starring Michael Douglas (in an unintentionally hilarious performance as a big-game hunter) and some maned lions from an Ontario zoo (also miscast, but more effective) as the perpetrators. The actual lions (now stuffed) can be found at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, where they've been ever since Colonel Patterson came to lecture in 1924 and left the skulls and skins behind for a price. A few years ago Bruce Patterson teamed up with local dentist and anthropologist Skip Neiburger to study the century-old rampage--which still mystifies experts, because lions don't usually go after humans. After examining the damaged teeth and jaws of the killers, they concluded the big cats turned man-eater because they were too impaired to land their usual dinner. Patterson and Neiburger's latest work, on 23 problem lions in the same area, has led them to observe that human infringement on the animals' habitat reduces their natural prey while providing new temptations like livestock and its keepers. Patterson will discuss his new book, The Lions of Tsavo: Exploring the Legacy of Africa's Notorious Man-Eaters, at 7:30 PM on Wednesday, June 30, at Borders, 1 N. La Grange in La Grange. It's free; call 708-579-9660.

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