Pride Lands Online


by David Cleary

Near the end of the "pouncing lesson" scene in "The Lion King" (TLK), a burrowing rodent-like creature pops out of the ground from underneath Zazu. The following dialogue exchange takes place:

Unidentified creature: Zazu!

Zazu: [exasperated] Yes?

Unidentified creature: [saluting] Sir! News from the underground.
In the Pollard/Tiemann version of the script, this unnamed creature is referred to as a gopher. In the working draft script of TLK by Mecchi and Roberts dated August 20, 1993, he is identified as a mole. The character and voice actor are uncredited in the movie itself.

Unless Disney has made another error akin to that of putting South American giant anteaters in Africa (see the pyramid of animals near the end of "I Just Can't Wait to Be King"), this creature cannot be a gopher. Pocket gophers (family Geomyidae, 34 species in 5 genera divided into two tribes, Geomyini and Thomomyini) are native only to North and Central America. It is admittedly easy for a TLK viewer to mistake the character for a gopher, however. This creature is clearly a burrowing animal with a rather rounded and compact body, prominent gnawing incisors (that is, buck teeth at the top and bottom of the jaw in front), and small, but clearly visible eyes--all features possessed by gophers.

This animal is not a mole, either, certainly not the type of mole (family Talpidae, 29 species in 12 genera) familar to laymen in Western countries. These moles live in North America, Europe, and Asia only. Nor do these creatures look anything like TLK's burrowing animal. Talpidae family moles have long, pointed snouts or (in the case of the star-nosed mole, Condylura cristata) a more flattened proboscis with tentacle-like protuberances. It is most unlikely that this creature is a golden mole, either (family Chrysochloridae, 18 species in 7 genera). These are indeed native to Central and Southern Africa and their burrowing behavior is similar to that of American gophers. They also have the chunky body and small nose gophers have. However, golden moles do not have visible eyes (their eyes are almost lost and are covered with hairy skin). And no mole species has prominent rodent-type front teeth (moles are more closely related to shrews and hedgehogs).

It is most likely that the unnamed tunneling animal in TLK is either a mole rat (family Bathyergidae, 9 species in 5 genera) or a root rat (subfamily Rhizomyinae, genus Tachyoryctes, 2 species). Both these types of animals are native to sub-Saharan Africa, are about the size and shape of gophers, have very prominent gnawing incisors, dig extensive underground tunnels, and have visible (though very small) eyes.

The naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber) is a yellowish-brown color, similar to that of the TLK creature (the other rodents mentioned above are darker-hued). The TLK creature does not exhibit the slack, wrinkled, hairless appearance of the naked mole rat, however. But then again, one might well question whether fur color should be seriously considered when trying to solve this riddle because TLK's animators have taken extensive liberty with animal coloring in the movie. The lions in this film, for example, range in hue from brownish-gold to tan, exhibiting a color spectrum much wider than any real-life lions I've ever seen. The burrowing creature being discussed here may simply have been given a lighter color in order to contrast more clearly with the darker dirt and vegetation that surround him. One could well argue as a result that animal color in TLK is potentially determined by factors other than faithful species observation, and may therefore not be a reliable indicator of anything here.

In summation, Zazu's subterranean associate is probably a species of mole rat or root rat, not a mole or a gopher.

{Submitted by Dave C.}
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SOURCE FOR ANIMAL INFORMATION: The Encyclopedia of Mammals, ed. by David MacDonald (New York: Facts on File, 1984).

NOTE: Even though the voice actor for this creature is uncredited in the movie, I have received communication from what appears to be a reliable source that he is voiced by Jim Cummings.