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I had an interesting chat today with a young woman from a traditional circus family, who explained she could not grow up to become a lion tamer, because lions could smell when women are menstruating and are then likely to attack.

I found this claim quite surprising, and sure enough, while there have been female lion-tamers, the claim was repeated on the Internet.

  • Boxing Scenes forum

    [A female lion-tamer] told me that the reason most lion tamers are men is because they can smell the menstruation on a female and it causes them to go crazy.

  • Straight Dope Discussion board

    I remember a Pop-Up Video show which said during the taping of the video for "Like a Virgin", Madonna was asked by the lion tamer if she was menstruating.

Is this an old circus legend? Is it true that menstruating women are more likely to suffer attacks from lions? Or is there some other story?

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    I used to hear the same thing about bears, but that's apparently been disproven: bearsmart.com/resources/north-american-bears/dispelling-myths – Sean Duggan Feb 4 '15 at 13:24
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    I've heard a similar thing also said of sharks and lady divers. – user7920 Feb 4 '15 at 16:39
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    I've heard these myths before, and I think it comes from times before tampons and pads were widely used. As these likely reduce the blood smell drastically, which is likely what would attract a hungry lion or bear but in the case of sharks it would likely be worse since even small amounts of blood in the water can attract them. Although I agree with the bear people in that it wouldn't be something to worry about because of all the other factors. – Ian Gallant Feb 4 '15 at 17:01
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    Alright. If you want to be technical, they found no evidence in tests that menstruation attracts bears? The brief research I did this morning seems to indicate that the myth date back to a single case in the 1940s. May or may not apply to lions, of course. – Sean Duggan Feb 4 '15 at 18:59
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    <anecdotal>I owned a sheepdog, who would stick his nose in the crotch of any menstruating woman who entered the house</anecdote>. Made bring dates home "interesting". This seems perfectly reasonable to me! – Binary Worrier Feb 5 '15 at 16:54
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According to The Lady and Her Tiger, the autobiography of animal trainer and animal rights advocate Pat Derby, at page 75:

I remember one occasion when a television commercial was being filmed with a lion and a young model. The manager made a point of asking the girl whether she were menstruating; as it happened, she was, but she wanted the job and said no. When the shooting began, the lion, excited by her smell, pounced on her and held her down, not hurting her, but rumbling and snarling and rubbing his four-hundred-pound self against her, as lions do with lionesses. Whenever anyone came near, he gripped the girl harder, making a rescue attempt almost certainly fatal. Eventually the manager had to lean as close as he dared and whisper what she would have to do to escape.
What she had to do was fondle the lion to a climax. It reads like a gruesome dirty joke, but it worked, and it probably saved her life. The manager spoke from experience, having been in much the same situation himself. A horny lion respects neither age, sex, nor species.

I'm not aware of controlled scientific studies of this in lions, but in polar bears ability to smell menstruation has been scientifically confirmed in "Response of Polar Bears to Human Menstrual Odors".

[...] a strong behavioral response was elicited only by seal scents and menstrual odors (used tampons).

  • I wonder how much sens this makes on a evolutionnary point of view. For reproductive purpose, it would be more effective if lionesses (not even speaking about other species) made lions horny when they are most fertile, hence before menstruating. Menstruating odors, on the other hand, would indicate that the lioness is not fertile right now, and I cannot figure out how that would help to make lions horny at that ,err, period. My reasonning might well be flawed and I'll welcome any explanation ! – Evargalo Mar 2 '18 at 12:56
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    @Evargalo Mating periods work differently between species. Cats, dogs and lots of other mammals don't "menstruate", they get into heat, which is marked by the bleeding and the fertile period. Humans don't have a heat per se - the ovulation is hidden, and the menstruation isn't a signal of fertility but the shedding of the needed tissue to hold a pregnancy. Thus, the lion gets confused since for him that smell means something else. – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Mar 2 '18 at 12:59

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