I’ve been away for a week to visit family and during my stay I watched a documentary on a group of lions in a zoo. The zoo is in Holland and they have tried to create environments in which the animals can live as naturally as possible. The lions have a huge space and the terrain is varied. The pride consists of a lion and 6 or 7 lionesses. One of the lionesses had had a litter and she had been separated from the rest of the pride to give her privacy with her cubs. The documentary showed the day that the lioness and her cubs were going to join the rest of the pride. The zoo keepers did this by allowing the pride to enter the space where the lioness and her cubs were, out of the public eye. They started with a couple of lionesses and the pride lion. As soon as the lionesses spotted the lioness with the cubs, they attacked. The voice-over mentioned that it was three months since the pride had last seen the lioness and that she had lost her place in the group. She would need to be accepted into the group again and the fighting was unavoidable. It looked vicious. The cubs were terrified and ran away, one of them even climbed a tree almost to the top, while their mother was on her back, fighting desperately to keep her assailants off her. Meanwhile, the male checked out the cubs, who were spitting at him and showed their readiness to defend themselves if necessary. The voice-over informed us the lion was making sure the cubs did not belong to some rival, and that this was a tense moment because he might kill them if he did not accept them. The camera showed a view of the vet on call, sedation rifle at the ready just in case. The male decided he was ok about the cubs and his attention focussed on the fighting lionesses. Quick as lightning he threw himself into the middle, tore them apart and roared at them until they all backed off. Eventually, the tension seemed to dissipate and the little cub in the tree slithered down to the ground and joined his siblings at his mother’s side. Then they let in the remaining lionesses and again, they attacked immediately. The other lionesses joined in again and the male was fighting like, well, a lion, to restore order. It was obvious that the amount of violence was shocking even the keepers, there were worried faces and a second vet arrived. Eventually, the group sorted itself out, the gates to the main area were opened and they all left, ready to resume their normal, everyday life.
That images of that documentary are still in my head. It was not normal behaviour for lions. Lions are extremely social animals and in the wild a lioness with cubs would never isolate herself from the pride. On the contrary, lions have creches where the babies are minded by a few of the lionesses while the rest go off to hunt. The aggression of the lionesses in the zoo was far from natural. Human decisions were responsible for the incredibly violent attacks on the lioness with cubs. I can understand that they wanted to keep the lioness away from the public to let her have privacy and raise her cubs in a quiet environment, but I couldn’t help wondering if they couldn’t have done that without separating her from the rest of the pride. The level of human interference in the lions’ social structure seemed wrong, even if it was done with the best of intentions.
For most animals, living in the human world means that their natural behaviour is either impossible or seriously curtailed. The stress this brings can show itself in many ways, displaced behaviour, vices, aggression, but inevitably the consequences must be that things sometimes go wrong. We make decisions for our animals with the best intentions, but it has to fit in with our own lives and sometimes are options are limited or we don’t fully understand the implications of our decisions. I started thinking again about what happened between Máire’s and my horses. When Maire brought Ben and Rosie over early this summer, we just put them in with Minnie and Cassie and assumed all would be well. After all, last summer Ben and Rosie’s stay had been very successfull and the four of them had seen each other regularly during the year. We never thought it through and that was a mistake. Last year, the circumstances were completely different. Most of the time, all the horses were together in the fields; Máire was on holiday so Ben and Rosie were enjoying their time off, Minnie was on rest with the tendon injury and I gave Cassie a bit of a holiday too, I only took her out for two rides. For the horses, the situation was stable and predictable. This year the circumstances were completely different, Ben and Cassie were taken out of the field regularly, both together and on their own, and there were other changes as well. This must have been stressfull for the horses, something we failed to recognise. We should have offered them some structure, a pattern they could recognise and anticipate. In hindsight, there were warning signs that all was not well long before trouble started, but neither of us picked up on them until it was too late. In the end, with Cassie hurt, Máire and I decided we couldn’t risk anything else happening and we put Ben and Rosie in a separate field from Minnie and Cassie.
When I came home, I couldn’t wait to go to my horses. They heard me coming up the track, and long before I could see them I could hear Minnie whinnying loudly. When I came into view, even Cassie whinnied softly. They were both obviously very happy to see me. Cassie stuck to me like glue, even following me into the tackroom through a narrow door and she jealously kept me to herself, keeping Minnie away. In the end, I put them into their stables to give both some private time and a long grooming session. When I came into her stable, Minnie leaned forward so we could exchange breaths. Then, as I started untangling her mane, she yawned and yawned and yawned. I felt home.
Later I walked up to the house. Ben and Rosie watched me, ears pricked, eyes soft. I went up to greet them. I felt a twinge, that we can’t keep them together. Not paradise. But it’s the best we can do.