by Kira Storm
“Lion, lion, lion!” The squeals of a little girl welcomed me to the place I called home for a very long time. A scratchy bow around my neck, a colorful box in which I sat, and bright eyes in a round face of a human child that stretched out its hands to grab my face left and right smearing chocolate cake into my fur. Some children get a dog or a cat for their birthday, in this family they had gotten both in the years before, now it had been time for the next level, which was me.
My early days I spent with eight other cubs in a pen. We all had been taken from our mothers at just a couple of days old. Our cries had never gotten an answer and we ceased to call out for them. Instead we settled into being our own family, our own pride of orphans. The humans rearing us couldn´t fill the emptiness our mothers had left behind. There were too many of them, always changing, always demanding attention.
Soon we became subject to the petting attraction at the place we lived at. Tourists, lured to the farm house and restaurant by street signs and promises of a unique face to face encounter with lions, cramped into our pen eager to get their hands on us.
The day I was turned from a lion into a kids present was not much different than any other. A couple, both in their mid-thirties, came to us in the early morning. I was rolling around with a friend of mine, pinning him down and growling playfully. The mornings were the best time of the day, a time where we weren´t exhausted yet, the sun´s rays were still mercifully weak, and the air fresh, giving us new energy.
So we played around, enjoying the minutes before we were expected to behave and be the sweet cuddly things the humans paid to see when that couple arrived. They watched us for a while before the woman pointed her finger at me. “Can I hold that one?” I was picked up and put into her arms saving my opponent from sure defeat. Giving in into my role I relaxed in her grip allowing her to pet me. Her hair was of a bright blonde color. With my paw I caught a strand dangling in front of my nose. An upcoming breeze stole the fine hairs from my grip and climbing up her shoulder I tried to get hold of it again. Chuckling the woman stopped me and put me back into her lap.
A while later she passed me to her husband who held me awkwardly, his arms stretched out. His gaze was probing, scanning me up and down. “How old did you say he is?”, the man asked. Something about his expression and tone made me uneasy. He didn´t sound or look like the usual customers. I got the feeling he was assessing me, my value. “About three months.” Raised eyebrows and an approving nod. “Big for his age…”, he murmured to himself. A decision dawned on his face. Handing me back to his wife he said: “We take him.”
That´s how I ended up in the house of Susanne and Robert, done up and presented to their daughter Maya for her birthday. Her brother Julian almost got into a jealous fit before his parents could calm him down with the promise of a special surprise they had already planned for his birthday next year. I got lifted out of the box and set before the children. Both had forgotten cake and drinks on the table. Curious about where I had ended up I looked around. Shredded paper littered the floor and miniature humans and other figurines lay around. Slipping through the small hands reaching for me I investigated the strange objects. When I smelled the tiny humans a strong piercing smell burned my nostrils and sneezing I knocked them away, sending the dolls skittering across the floor. Laughter followed and hands grabbed me from behind. I lost the ground under my feet and got hurled around. “Smile!”, Susanne chided and in the next moment a blinding light flashed that left me startled.
Everything was so new for me, the smells, the rooms, the people, and most of all the rules. There were many of them and I struggled to keep up with their sheer amount. “Don´t chew on the cushions!” “Don´t chase the cat!” “Don´t bite!” “Stay!” “Come!” “Leave it!”… Whatever I did there was a rule that forbade it.
I was allowed or better expected to play with Maya and Julian, when they came home. Humans spend a lot of time outside their den, leaving it early in the morning and not returning before the evening. During that time I was locked into a room. A big table dominated the space with a leather chair in front of it. That´s where I spent most of the time dozing off and staring at the walls lined with shelves and books. It was forbidden to play with them as it was forbidden to touch anything in that room. Not the cords dangling around, not the piles of paper that made funny rustling noices when pushed off the edge, not with the rug´s tassels… But it was so boring sitting there alone. Outside my door I could hear the dog´s steps tapping on the wooden floor, could smell him passing by and leaving through the doggy-door that lead into the garden. He and the cat could go in and out all day while I was confined to my chamber full of toys I wasn´t allowed to play with.
At the beginning, whenever the long hours of the day got the best of me, I used to explore the possibilities of entertainment provided by the numerous furniture anyway. I had so much fun the first days! But Robert didn´t like my redecoration as much as I did. Shouting accompanied rough hands that gripped me by the collar and hit me. Noise and violence seemed to be the language of the humans. They didn´t like something I did, they shouted, hit, or pulled my tail. That´s how I learned the rules. “Don´t scratch the table-legs.” “Don´t pee on the tiles.” “Don´t play with the children.”
That one always confused me. They put me with Maya and Julian and wishing us a fun time playing, but I wasn´t allowed to. Whenever I got really into it, chasing the ball, jumping onto them and wrestling for the price the parents got mad at me. It was the same when I welcomed them home, relieved to be let out of my prison. Being excited was forbidden too. Everything fun, everything active, all forbidden, all bringers of disciplining. Most of the time I felt like I was just another piece of decorative furniture in their eyes, a trophy. But I didn´t feel like being one of the stuffed animals Maya has laying around and I wasn´t allowed to chew on. No, I wanted to run, to play, to roll around and not care about rules. I missed my playing mates from the small pen.
The only time I was allowed to leave the house was when it got dark out. Like the dog they put me on a leash and walked me into the backyard. It was surrounded by a high hedge and an even higher wall, save from any curious neighbors spying eyes. There they attached the leach to a chain in the wall so I had some twenty meters radius to walk around, sniff some fresh air and grass, and feel the earth beneath my paws. What made the backyard especially exciting though were its inhabitants: In two cages next to each other lived two grown tigers.
Sadly they didn´t find me as interesting as I found them. Snarls were all I got from them when I came over to play and that was when they had a generous day. Usually they either ignored me laying around or pacing their barred cages. They weren´t very chatty giving off a vibe of constant distaste. I had the feeling they were fed up with everything, their imprisonment that they eyed everyone with contentment, whether human or animal. I felt sorry for them that they lost their light and deep down feared to stare into my future when watching them. But then I thought, that´s never going to be me, I see too much joy in the world, or at least possibilities for it. I´m never going to give up on that.
My happy disposition lasted four months. As I grew older I began getting tired of being locked up in the study all day. The wandering dog and cat outside my door felt like teasaing, like a snack held in front of me but always just out of my reach. Glass doors had been installed to protect the books from my playful phases and every stack of paper was safely locked in drawers. As if that wasn´t enough they brought up the wooden cage in which they used to keep their children and put me in there with an old cushion, nothing compared to the comfortable leather seat. Rules got stricter the bigger I grew and I had nowhere to get rid of all the energy stacking up inside of me. Whenever I lost control it ended up in something breaking and the matching penalty. So I tried to teach myself to tuck it safely away, keep it all in there, the excitement, the fun, the happiness. I was not allowed to be a lion, just look like one. I was expected to behave like a well-trained dog, a domesticated cat, I was their pet after all.
Well, I tried and failed. That restrictive mind-set isn´t mine. When opportunities present themselves I just can´t resist. If life´s not there to be enjoyed, then what is it worth? What is an existence without adventure? Nothing, I think, and therefore I couldn´t resist when an opportunity opened up to have an adventure of my own.
It was one of the days when the humans usually get up very early in the morning to disappear for hours and only to come back stressed, tired and annoyed. Well, that day Robert and Susanne didn´t wake, probably because I had knocked over their alarm clock the day before and it missed to ring in the morning. Anyways, when they finally woke with a start they got very hectic, ushering their kids out of bed, stuffing boxes of food in their bags and hurrying out the door. They were almost to the car when Robert remembered me. Running back to the house he snatched me up and hastily made his way up the stairs to the study. He basically threw me in there, pulling the door shut with a bang. Then he was off again, leaving me alone, outside the cage.
Happy about my unexpected freedom for the day I strolled around the shelves and the desk, sniffed the garbage bin, and eyed the chair. After a second of consideration I crouched and jumped. Settling in I was very satisfied with myself. My landing had caused the chair to rotate a little and as I sat there I felt a light breeze ruffling through my fur. Looking up I recognized that in his haste Robert had forgotten to close the window leading out onto the roof…
For some time I simply sat there and eyed the open window. I knew I wasn´t allowed to leave the room, not to mention the house. But that window… It was basically begging me to come out and take a look around. It lured me, called out with a soft promising voice. What harm could it do to just have a quick walk around? I would be back inside before anyone notices. When would I ever get the chance to see the outside in daylight again?
My decision was made. The windowsill was a good jump away. Crouching deep I tightened my muscles and prepared myself, then I leapt sending the chair rotating violently. Skittering I landed on the sill. My claws couldn´t find any grip on the marble and for a breathtaking second I thought I would slip down the edge again. In the last moment I got hold of the wooden frame and dug my claws into it. Scrambling I got my lower body back up on the sill. With a racing heart I stood before the gate to the outside, another breeze beckoning me to take the final step. It didn´t take much persuasion.
The shingles were hot under my paws, the sun beat down on my fur, and I loved it. The height sent a thrill through my entire body. Up here the air smelled different and the seemingly large garden and unclimbable wall surrounding it appeared small. I could see over the boundaries that had defined my life there. I felt like I was on top of the world and for the first time I got a glimpse of how big it actually was. There is so much out there I haven´t seen…!
I don´t remember for how long I was up there. I was too entranced by how my world had expanded that I didn´t notice the excited voices down below on the street. A crowd of people had formed on the pedestrian walk opposite my house and fingers were pointed up at me. Unsure what it meant I stared back at them. Were they going to tell on me? Worries clouded my bright mood and hurriedly I made my way back into the study. What consequences will this bring?, I thought already feeling the sharp tug on my tail. Snapping at it I tried to get rid of the phantom pain. Little did I know that my walk on the roof was my walk towards freedom.
My owners didn´t find out about my disobedience until the next day when men in uniform rang the doorbell. With them they brought a crate and that was the last time I saw the family. The officers who confiscated me brought me into a zoo which was my temporary home for a fairly short amount of time. Soon they send me off again to a place that could provide me with a forever home.
Here at Panthera Africa I get to sleep under the stars and sun, walk through grass and hide under trees. There are no mountains of rules, no punishment for clawing at the posts, no harsh words when I toll around, and most of all no study to lock me into. No one expects me to behave a certain way, except to be myself.
I have my own “roof” from which I can look out on the world and the other animals. They also seem very happy here and I am glad to have escaped the resentful aura of the caged tigers. On the other hand I feel sorry for them that they are still stuck in the old life, that it is illegal to have me but not them without a permit. Neither lion nor tiger is meant to be a pet; we are predators, we are not tame. We are wild!”