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Man-eating lions turned into cuddly cats after getting ‘love drug’

A Minnesota University team found the intranasal application made lion meet-cutes less life-threatening.

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By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

Man eating lions have been turned into pussycats - with a nasal spray containing the 'love hormone' oxytocin.

The King of the Jungle became friendly rather than ferocious after being treated with the hormone which boosts social recognition and bonding.

Lions guard their territory fiercely - mortally wounding foes with a single swipe.

Aggression benefits apex predators in the wild - but hinders those on reserves or in captivity. Numbers are growing due to habitat loss.

A Minnesota University team found the intranasal application made lion meet-cutes less life-threatening.

The study in the journal iScience may boost mating programs. It was carried out on a wildlife reserve in Dinokeng, South Africa.

First author Jessica Burkhart, a PhD candidate, said: "By spraying the oxytocin directly up the nose, we know it can travel up the trigeminal nerve and the olfactory nerve straight up into the brain.

"Otherwise the blood-brain barrier could filter it out."

Along with animal biologist Dr. Craig Packer and neuroscientist Dr. Sarah Heilbronner, she spent two summers using hunks of raw meat to lure lions up to a fence.

They sprayed oxytocin up their noses with a tool that looks like an antique perfume bottle.

Afterwards, observations showed the 23 who received it were more tolerant of other lions in their space - and displayed less vigilance towards intruders.

Ms. Burkhart said: "You can see their features soften immediately, they go from wrinkled and aggressive to this totally calm demeanor. They totally chill out. It's amazing."

Experts measure social tolerance by seeing how close a lion who has possession of a desired object, in this case a toy, will let others approach.

Ms. Burkhart said: "After the lions were treated with oxytocin, and we gave them their favorite pumpkin toy to play with, we saw the average distance between them drop from about seven meters with no treatment to about 3.5 meters after oxytocin was administered."

But in a scenario where food was present, they did not show increased tolerance to each other - even after the hormone was given.

Importantly for future introductions, the hormone-treatment significantly reduced their vigilance toward potential intruders.

The animals never roared in response to recordings of unfamiliar lions - whereas untreated peers always did.

This may become particularly helpful as cities in Africa sprawl and encroach upon lions' territory.

In order to keep them safe and away from humans, many have been transported to private fenced reserves.

It often results in lions from different prides being mixed in with one another.

Ms. Burkhart added: "Currently we're working on introductions of animals who have been rescued from circuses or overseas or war zones that now live in sanctuaries.

"The hope is this will translate to animals being relocated in the wild, helping them to become more inclined to their new social environment so they're more curious and less fearful, leading to more successful bonding."

Some therapists already use intranasal oxytocin sprays to treat people with autism - believing it should enhance their response to social stimuli.

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