Lions in My Lap

Lions in My Lap

A Story of Orphaned Lions

By Iris Hunt

I have had Lions in my life for all the 40 years I’ve lived in Africa. In my lap many times as endearing, defenseless orphans. In the wild as the most awesome of the predatory killers, living in perfect harmony with their environment. In my imagination – in many mixed images – in the course of reading the interwoven history of Art and Humanity.

A recent article in a Nairobi paper attracted my attention. It recounts the ‘ordeal’ of a city family of six camping at Tsavo National Park when they felt they were ‘under attack’ from a pride of Lions.

(It doesn’t happen. – Or, there again, it did once!)

Lions have had a fascination for Man since pre-historical times. It seems somewhat of a tall story that the hot-blooded predators of the African plains should have been seen roaming Europe during the Ice Age. But they must have been there at the time, or thereabouts, since the ancestral forms of these magnificent animals are depicted in some of the cave drawings of the “Old Stone Age” Paleolithic period, between 10,000 to 30,000 B.C.

Lion illustration

Lions “resurrected from the dead” is a story recorded in the Book of Moses and there was also something of a worshipful Lion cult evident in the hieroglyphics and decorative art of the Ancient Egyptians.

The Pharaohs kept tame Lions as a symbol of power and sometimes took them into battle for the same reason – to inspire awe and dread in the minds of the opposition in a little pre-emptive psychological hype. In Phoenicia and Mesopotamia (now Iraq), the animals were held to be sacred.

Later, the ancient Greek and Roman scribes, notably Aristotle and Pliny, clearly drew on the antique wealth of Lion mythology to extol their “real life” virtues. Grand Admiral Pliny, for instance, cited a common belief that the big cat – a fairly efficient killer in reality…”Never harms women or babies unless it is from extreme hunger.”

The beast was similarly found to be “magnanimous” in the early encyclopedias of natural history. The 16th century biologist, Konrad Gesner, ascribed near-human qualities to the generally “peaceful and mild Lion,” romantically overlooking the animal’s previous savage history of dispatching Christians in the bloody “circuses” of pagan Rome.

In the history of modern traveling circuses, from the 18th Century onwards, there are any number of episodes of a performing Lion pouncing on its “tamer” in a moment of inattention and tearing him to pieces – occasionally with a horrified audience looking on.

Lion in the Mara

Still the Lion remains the most “noble of beasts, certainly for the British, back to “Richard the Lionheart.” It is still everywhere emblazoned on their heraldic devices, including rampant on the Queen’s coat of arms and couchant on shirts of the England football squad.

It’s the same in many other countries, with the Lion the symbol of majesty in place remotely north from its natural kingdom, for example in Scotland, Norway and Denmark.

Yet its closest royal association will always be in Africa with Haile Selassie. the revered former ruler of Ethiopia and current “Rasta” spiritual leader. He always had Lions roaming freely about his palaces and his own proudest title was, fittingly for the truly great Emperor-King: “The Lion of Judah.

Today in Africa there are many tales of folkloric truth and superstition about the majestic animal that old tribal fabulists still tell and embroider with each telling.

Elsewhere in the world – also to this day, as ever in history – the “magnanimous” Lion continues to lend its image to admiring leaders of men as the symbol of their own mighty courage, strength and power – be it real, imagined or aspired to.

But the most historically gothic of Lion horror stories is told in Man-Eaters of Tsavo, an all-time popular True Tale of the African Bush.

Lion King by artist Denis Murphy

Lion King by artist Denis Murphy

It’s an exotic, graphic book that did much to put “newly discovered” Kenya on the map of Imperial Victorian imagination at the acquisition of the territory as a British Crown “Possession” in the late 19th century.

It happened during construction of the Uganda Railway linking Mombasa to the little known shores of Lake Victoria to beat the advances of the equally keen German Kaiser there.

The ‘lunatic line to nowhere’ as it was nicknamed, was delayed for ten months due to the unprecedented killing spree by a pair of rampaging man-eating Lions.

Somehow these extraordinary Lions avoided all baited traps and ambushes, one becoming so unconcerned that it took to boarding the train to get at its cowering victims and haul them off into the bush. A total of 26 Indian railway workers and an uncounted number of Africans were taken along with one European family – a man, his wife and two children, dragged out of a tent and eaten.

The two Lions came to be seen as supernatural by the railway work force . Many may also have been somewhat skeptical that mortal humans would ever dispatch them. But the fearful “demons” were finally tracked and summarily “exorcised,” one by one, by the hunters’ heavy caliber bullets.

They were still talking about it as if it happened yesterday, when I first came to Kenya in 1963, some 40 years later.

At that time there was also “Born Free”, of course. The great romance of the Lioness Elsa and the Adamsons, George and Joy, was already world famous. And since then, the saga has become imprinted on the Pantheon of immortal human-animal stories through countless reprints of the book, movies and TV shows.

Rightly so in some ways, not least because Elsa has remained a fitting memorial to the outstanding dedication to wildlife conservation of the early Game Wardens in Kenya – and George Adamson was truly one of the greatest – as well as a symbol of his talented wife’s crusade to save and preserve Africa’s wild heritage.

At the same time, there has been more than a little legend-making over the years – some “dissembling” of the truth – about the raising of the orphaned lion cub and her eventual freeing back into the wild.

She may have become a supernatural incarnation of natural grace and nobility to Joy – as she would write – but Elsa was also a real, live, natural-born Lioness. Always a dangerous predator, which skittishly killed one of the Adamsons’ camp-site cooks during the “rehabilitation” phase when he failed to produce her food on time.

Lion with Wildebeeste

In our own experience over the years in Africa, never once did Don and I feel truly at risk (nor “under attack”) from these intelligent animals for which man is only a threat, not a natural prey. Obviously Elsa’s unprovoked attack on the cook was an exception, but not inexplicable. Who can say for sure that it was an “attack” at all, for instance? It could have been an accident, with a tame creature unaware (or momentarily unmindful) of her own deadly force, strength and instincts.

In the case of the running amok of the Man-eaters of Tsavo, though, we will never know.

Inevitably Don and I have had more than a few “adventures and excitements” with wild Lions in the bush. Several times, we had them in camp at night. Awakened by their sudden silence, we watched them circling our tents, sniffing us out.

We have also stalked lions with a camera, only to find that they, in turn, were following us once they were on to our game, driven by curiosity and instinctive survival strategy.

I have a small library of books written by early European “explorers” and the big game hunters that followed them into Kenya, including the “big bag” presiding eminence of Teddy Roosevelt. They also inevitably had a story or more to tell about Lions. But as diverse as these were – also in terms of “actuality” – they had one thing common:

An unstinted admiration for the “beauty, bravery, intelligence, ingenuity and endurance of these mighty cats of the African plains.”

As I said at the outset there have been several Lions in my life. The most recent were a couple of baby cubs we took into care at the Orphanage two years ago, in 2002.

We received a call for help from the Wildlife Department in Nairobi. The two cubs had been found abandoned in the Maasai Mara…Could we take them?

We enquired about their age and condition and were told: “They’re very small and tame.”

Don Hunt with one of his first lions

Don Hunt with one of his first lions

Don and I consulted. We have learned the hard way about all that’s involved in fostering Lion cubs. You raise the cuddly little tykes and, before you know it, they’ve stolen your heart – or something of the sort. But then they grow at an alarming rate and at the ever-demanding teenage phase, it’s a full-time job to keep them entertained – not to speak of keeping them fed. The quantities of raw meat dished out before they’re satisfied become increasingly enormous.

Eventually you begin frantically casting around for an idea of how, you can safely launch them out into what should be their real world.

Every day the time-clock ticks more insistently, reminding you that the hour approaches to say “good-bye” to your long-stay board & lodgers – as hard as that’s going to be. But soon, you decide, finally. As soon it’s practical and good for the young Lions – but not soon enough!

In this case, the decision was made easier by the fact that a neighboring couple had been bitten by the “Lion bug,” thereafter developing what would be a chronic case of “Lionitis.”

At that time, they hadn’t been long in Africa, but had already become enamored with the wildlife, with a special fascination for wild Lions. They spent endless hours in the Game Parks trailing, watching and learning all they could about the big cats.

They also knew about the Orphanage, of course, and had taken note of the fact that, not infrequently, wild young Lions cubs are brought to us that would not survive without temporary shelter or were otherwise at risk.

The couple then spent a fortune building an extension to their home as a “state of the art” facility designed for the care of orphaned Lions. It was entirely speculative and philanthropic – just in case, by chance, a Lion or two, should be in need of a temporary home, they would be happy and ready to help out.

Don and I thus had our good neighbors in the back of our minds when we contemplated taking in the two “small and tame” cubs abandoned in the Mara. We told the Wildlife Department: “Yes,” sent a car to Nairobi and waited with some excitement and curious anticipation for its return later that day.

Lion cub

But it wasn’t two sweet, docile little cats that emerged from the dog carrier box on arrival. Far from it. These were two very cross, very unhappy cubs, evidently greatly irritated by the long car journey and not at all pleased at being handled by the human species that had inflicted it on them.

They immediately retreated into the far corner of the boma we had prepared for them at the house, glowering menacingly in our direction. Anyone who tried to approach was snarled at in no uncertain terms, little paws thumping the ground, claws extended.

It was evident, though, that physically they were in a sorry state. By the look of the scruffy fur on their thin little bodies, they were suffering sorely from the lack of a mother’s care.

When was it, we wondered, that they had lost her? When had the cubs been picked up? How long had they been ‘in transit,’ acting so wild.

There were no answers. At that point all we knew from the Wildlife people was what we knew already – that authorization had been given to send them up to the Orphanage once it had been established we’d take them… Plus the additional information that a Maasai herdsman had stumbled across them and brought the waifs to the Game Scouts. But that was about all.

We guessed they were around two months old, clearly frightened as well as weak, but still in defiant stand-off mode in the corner of what they had yet to realize was safe sanctuary. They were not about to surrender – not even to their fundamental need for food. Every attempt to put any near them resulted in yet another display of hissing and spitting aggression.

Lion cub

I noticed that they had scars on their paws. Another question: Had they been hit with sticks? Almost certainly, I figured. Just to pick up two cubs of their size, even hapless orphans, would not have been possible without some measure of painfully enforced co-operation.

It would have been their first encounter with Man, inevitably unleashing a fierce instinctive reaction from the cubs – still Lions for all they were helpless infants.

In pondering my own position vis-à-vis my uncooperative charges, I concluded that I would have to revert to my old stand-by strategy: When nothing else worked with a wild animal that was not amenable to my care, I just had to wear them down with patience. So there I sat stubbornly in the boma, 12 feet from them, as close as they would allow me to get.

A good book got me over the first few hours of the following day. I then tried edging closer. But every time I made a move, the lion-hearted little scraps responded with brave mock charges – instinctive valor before a discretionary retreat further to the rear of the pen.

Clearly, I had to take it very slowly. It then got very uncomfortable sitting out there in the mid-day heat, so Don brought out a large sun-hat, the sight of which prompted renewed panic for the two little cats.

Eventually, we all fell asleep on the grass. When I woke they were staring at me. They had actually come closer – thinking their tormentor was dead, maybe, or to investigate the ‘submissive’ posture. Who ever knows what’s ever what with Lions?

In any event the first step on my “road-map to peace” had been taken. I was winning the war of patient attrition and we were at the point of “dialogue.” Or at least they had stopped protesting at any cautious advance I made.

Later that day I tried to push a dishful of tasty “slurp” in their direction – a mix of milk and bloody minced meat. But what would have been their first meal in days was met with such a thump of a well placed paw that the dish somersaulted and splattered us all with the odious-looking, pinky-white mess.

Well now, at least if nothing else, I must have smelled more tolerable, or so I optimistically hoped. Finally, on the third time of trying, the dish was not instantly swiped away.

Iris Hunt with Lion cubs

Iris Hunt with Lion cubs

Still they didn’t go near the food. They were warily eyeing it from a distance by the time I left them well after dark. I needed to eat, if they wouldn’t, I wasn’t about to hang around all night waiting for a couple of ungrateful, cussed kittens to make up their minds, I thought, feeling guilty already.

In fact the cubs didn’t eat that night. But the dish had been disturbed and clearly they’d investigated what was the “very best” we could offer in place of their natural diet in the wild at that age.

Happily, however, it was as though suddenly hunger had won over fear and blown away resistance. As if they had decided that if the measly milk and mince in the unfamiliar form of a dish was all that was going, they’d better make the best of it themselves and get to it. Which they did the next day – voraciously.

Generally they were much calmer. They still wouldn’t let me touch them and I couldn’t make any incautious move as I approached with the food. But once I’d withdrawn to a safe distance, they pounced on the dish and slurped up the mess of potage with lightening speed.

Inevitably most of it landed in the grass and on their bodies. But at least we’d reached an understanding – essentially their subconscious or instinctual understanding that what I was considerately, if gingerly, giving them was sustenance and survival.

From then on things between us improved hourly. In a few days the cubs had been taught to eat in a more properly mannered fashion and were even cajoled into playing “rope” and other games.

Iris Hunt with Lion cubs

Soon I was permitted to pick them up by the scruff of their necks without too much protest. At which stage in the relationship, I could finally get down to the “mother’s” business of picking off the ticks and sponging down their ratty coats.

After a while, all my other work began piling up as the Lions were taking up most of my time. Patti, a friend and zoology student intern at our William Holden Wildlife Education Center volunteered as co-Lion sitter. But Patti was again not immediately accepted by the cubs. She had to patiently put in roughly the same time as I had before they declared her “safe territory” and started jumping all over her.

They took particular delight in playing with her long, thick, auburn hair. So much so that I wondered – “anthropomorphically,” of course – whether they could have any recollection of what their “dad” might have looked like. Not inconceivably, he could have been one of the regal black-maned Lions for which the Maasai Mara is famous.

Slowly, the cubs became more tolerant of humankind, and downright fond of Don and myself as well as Patti, as we all took turns putting in many hours in feeding and amusing them.

Iris Hunt with Lion cubs

Ultimately, with the ticking of the time-clock and contemplation of their future, we made a call to Europe to contact our “Lion friendly” neighbors. As expected, they were elated with the prospect of taking over care of the young Lions for a while and undertook to return to Kenya as soon as possible to meet them.

In the meantime, the cubs’ condition continued to improve, with their sleek bodies visibly building up rippling muscles and growing overall. They also returned the pampered love and affection we gave them. What had started out as snarling, moth-eaten little monsters had turned into young, still essentially wild cats that, for the time being, would literally eat out of our hands.

Like the Adamsons, we would obviously prefer them to be “free” in the wild where they were born – in an ideal world, that is, and if it were a realistic prospect for these two. It wasn’t at that time and we could think of no “second best” solution than to entrust them to the care of the committed and kindly neighbors.

They had a magnificent purpose-built home waiting for them, and I felt good about that. But, as always, also a little sad when the day finally came to introduce the young Lions to their new “foster parents.”

 Lion cubs

Unfortunately, but also not surprisingly, they did not look at their beautiful new home with human eyes. All they would know was that, once again, it was humans who had taken them out of their, if not “natural,” then well-accustomed and happy environment. They reverted to their old aggressive snarling and charging at the strangers as we tried to settle them into their new quarters.

Back to square one. Again we had two very sad, almost depressed, little Lions on our hands.

I felt a little remorse at being the cause of their misery. But I also knew – and they would find out in time – that it was a good move, and the right one, for their immediate future.

Patti and I managed to calm them and after a few days they began exploring their spacious, not to say luxurious “pad.” There were separate sleeping quarters, a small pond to splash in, a huge outdoor area for their energetic cats’ play and many trees, even a couple of large rocks to climb.

Nothing was too good for them – no expense spared. Their benignly generous “guardians” brought in three keepers for round-the-clock care and even hired a vet to oversee their general health and administer medications should any be needed. Spoilt for care and attention they certainly were.

The Lions’ den even housed a kitchen with a fridge and cooker where their meat could be kept and warmed up. An adjacent storeroom was stocked with supplies of vitamins, cod-liver oil, calcium and bone meal, amongst other supplements. And, of course, plenty of “Lion proof” toys.

Aside from returning them to their natural habitat, obviously, I couldn’t imagine a better life for them.

Lion

As expected, it didn’t take too long for the Lions to “habituate” themselves, evidently finally content with the new environment. They soon started exploring, climbing the trees and inventing games with each other.

I had to persuade myself to stop visiting them. For safety concerns, among others, the plan was that their close physical contact with humans would be slowly withdrawn.

The Lions duly grew into the superbly fit and well-proportioned young adults they are today. Without question, they have benefited greatly from the ultimate in care they’ve been given in a safe environment. It’s unlikely that any Lion in the wild could be in better physical condition.

It is not inconceivable that, at some point, a “Born Free” project could be considered for them. There is still time and it would be feasible. Lions are indeed the wonderful intelligent brave and magnificent animals we love.

Because of their size, strength and predatory instinctive reactions, realistically they can be very dangerous to man when removed from their natural environment.

On the other hand, the world has changed since George Adamson’s day. The wilderness has shrunk and there is no easy way back out there.

Post script:

Lions

The aim of the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy is to protect wildlife in its natural habitat.

Whenever possible orphaned animals are returned to the wild.

 

 

 

Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy