In our "Setting" section, we've got all kinds of info on the African veldt (to sum up: hot, dangerous, no Starbucks). But here we'd like to talk about one particular element of that setting as a symbol in its own right. That's right, Shmoopers, let's tackle those lions.
Why lions? If you wrote a story where bad things happened to people in Africa, you have a lot to choose from: poisonous snakes, dying of thirst, wild dogs, no Starbucks. Bradbury could have chosen any of those rather horrifying options. But he didn't. He chose lions. And there has to be a reason, right?
When we first see the lions, they are just finishing up eating something (20), which you'll get used to over the whole story's length: the lions are always eating… something. The fact that we don't know what they're chowing down on might make you nervous, especially since it makes Lydia nervous.
Frankly, her instincts are right. Just check out this sentence when the lions first approach Mama Lydia and Papa George:
And here were the lions now, fifteen feet away, so real, so feverishly and startlingly real that you could feel the prickling fur on your hand, and your mouth was stuffed with the dusty upholstery smell of their heated pelts, and the yellow of them was in your eyes like the yellow of an exquisite French tapestry, the yellows of lions and summer grass, and the sound of the matted lion lungs exhaling on the silent noontide, and the smell of meat from the panting, dripping mouths. (29)
That's one long sentence, and as usual when Bradbury gives us a long sentence, he wants us to slow down and take it all in. Notice how this introduction plays on all the senses. You feel the "prickling fur," almost taste their "heated pelts," see their yellow eyes, hear their "matted lion lungs," and smell their meaty-smelling mouths. This is surround-sound experience, and if you had a sixth sense, it would be telling you run.
These sensory descriptions are, in a word, aggressive. The smell and taste of their fur is like "your mouth was stuffed." That's good when we're talking about cannoli, but very bad when we're talking about lions. And their yellow color is "in your eyes" which also sounds like you had better head straight to one of those scary eyewash stations in chemistry class. Plus, it's not just that you can hear them—they are the only things making a sound in this "silent noontide." The lesson? These lions are dominating the scene, and they are deadly.
It makes sense that it's lions, then, and not some other threatening creature. Lions are often symbols of power and authority, and we can see here that Bradbury highlights their power in the scene by allowing them to totally take over. Plus, that whole idea of power reminds us that this story is, at its heart, a power struggle. The fight between the parents and their twins is a fight for control over the family itself, and that's the Serious Issue that drives the whole family.