by Kira Storm
“Humans…! I´ve met my share of them. They are a weird species, some of them living in a cocoon of indifference, some are driven by an overpowering force of greed. For a long time my life was in the hands of people like that. But then there is the kind of humans that have a heart of gold and a kindred soul, people who see, who act, and who never stop believing. This story is the story of two such humans and how they came to save the lives of my brother and me.
One of my earliest memories is one of a cage, being scared and confused. I couldn´t see but I had felt the sudden absence of my mother´s warm fur, heard the sound of clanging metal, and felt the grip of strong hands. This was the day I was taken, carried away by humans to have my mother replaced by them. Next to me I felt the presence of my two sisters and I took comfort in the knowledge that we at least still had each other.
Arriving at our new home the cage swung with movement and voices reached my ears. A low rumble of a man and a lighter tilt of a woman. More rocking then hands lifting me out of the cage. I struggled against the grip. Something rubbery pressed against my mouth and I turned my head away and tried to get free of the arms holding me. From above came the calm melody of a female voice but I refused to listen. I didn´t want to be there, I wanted back to the warm and soft belly of my mother where sweet milk waited for me. My little tummy churned with hunger at the thought. A drop of liquid fell on my nose as I evaded the next attack of the rubber-thing. As I instinctively licked it away it tasted like something close to milk. Smacking my lips I tried to make sense of the flavor. The rubber blob took the chance to get into my mouth. Kicking with my legs I got free and more of the almost-milk got spilled on my fur making it sticky.
That it was indeed food and the rubber monster a teat took me a while to figure out but as soon as I understood I couldn´t get enough of it to still my hunger. The voice that had kept a calm melody got all excited as if she also had gotten her meal at last. From that moment on the voice, the arms and the somewhat-milk returned regularly to meet my growing appetite. I got used to the presence of the humans who seemed nicer than the first ones I encountered. Their continuous care for us allowed trust to grow.
After I got old enough and finally opened my eyes to put pictures to smells and noises I got my first look at Lizaene to whom the voice belonged that had always been around. Humans are curious creatures with hairless faces, dull teeth showing in wide smiles, and long manes just on top of their heads. Nonetheless, I liked the look of her kind eyes watching me and lighting up with delight at the sight of me.
Weeks passed in which my sisters and I grew stronger and bolder. I noticed Lizaene being distracted and tired for days at end and I wondered what the reason for that could be. Maybe it had something to do with the smell of the other lion cubs. We had never seen them, just smelled them in the clothes of Lizaene and the other humans taking care of us. That all changed when Obi joined us.
One day, I had just decided that it might be time for a nap, she came in with a strange cub in her arms. I recognized his smell which has a familiar note to it as if we were related of some sort. “This is Obi,”, introduced Lizaene us. “your half-brother. His siblings were ill and didn´t make it, he´ll live with you guys now, ok?” And with that she sat the smaller cub down. Unsure Obi simply looked at us, he didn´t seem too excited about his new siblings. So it was up to me to welcome him into the group, we are family after all. Despite his weariness and some quarrels that came up, Obi soon became part of my little pride. It was nice having a brother around who wasn´t as tiringly active as my sisters.
As we got older we moved into a bigger space. With it came a busy schedule. Suddenly a lot of humans decided to come and see us in addition to Lizaene and her helpers. Groups after groups would come, strokes of a hundred hands were placed upon us and a series of squeaking noises and excited chatter accompanied the fumble of fingers for cameras and phones. My sisters enjoyed the attention for most parts, Obi just chuckled in disbelieving amusement over the weirdness of human behavior, and I… well it´s nice to be the center of attention, having a good scrub here and there but not for hours, sometimes I just wished to be left alone and have a good nice long nap. Regrettably none of the humans could understand me and weeks turned to months before I finally met someone who could.
“This are our new Cubs: Oliver, Obi, Omega, and Orva. They were rejected by their mother and we raised them since shortly after their birth.”, Lizaene said to a stranger next to her bringing with her a new smell. Rejected? Is it that what Lizaene had been told? I remember rough hands not teeth or claws. I remember my mother´s roars screaming in agony, frustration, and anger for her children who had been taken away. I would not have called that rejection. My thoughts got interrupted by a face appearing in my field of vision. Hairless light skin, dull teeth showing in a smile and the kindest blue eyes. “Hey handsome.”, she whispered holding out a hand. Sniffing it I inhaled the fragrance of her warm skin. “He seems to like you Cat.”, Lizaene smiled. “You think so?” Cat´s speech had a distinct melody with a foreign air to it, one I came to love.
Cat began to spend a lot of time with us, with or without Lizaene. In her I felt a kindred spirit. Somehow I knew she and I could share more than a look, more than company but thoughts and feelings. Although nothing about the tiring daily schedule changed, I had comfort in her presence knowing there was at least one of the humans who spoke my language.
Three weeks after we met Cat left, going home, she said, as she had been a volunteer. I resented her for leaving me alone, leaving me to that numbing routine of a day with changing faces, fingers, and voices. Who am I supposed to talk to now? I didn´t want to hear her excuses, her good-byes and she left with tears in her eyes.
As soon as she was gone I regretted it, wishing her back. In our language I called out for her during the lonely days when neither my sisters nor my brother could distract me from the longing for the blue eyes and the warm face. My call seemed to have reached her because it didn´t take long for her to come back and this time she came to stay. She and Lizaene became like mothers to Obi, my two sisters, and me. In their presence I felt safe, loved, and seen for what I am, a lion not an object.
Sadly this was not the case with the leading human at the facility where we lived. One day, I was about 8 months of age, agitated voices caught my attention. “What does that mean, home?” It was Cat. “I thought we were their home?!” Her tone made me uneasy, something was wrong. “We have to send them back, they are grown now.” “Where are they going to go?” She and Lizaene inquired until they got the information they wanted. Our home, so said the man, was apparently a “breeding farm” which send us here to be raised and kept as long as we are small enough to attract tourists and aren´t a danger to them. I did not quite understand what these words meant but we should experience the meaning of those words pretty soon.
A breeding farm turned out to be an awful place, smelly and dirty. My little pride and I were let into a small cage. Rattling the gate was swung shut and locked. Without a word or glance the men who brought us there left. I didn´t like the smell of it, I felt in my gut that the sheltered days were over and maybe the swarm of squeaking tourists wasn´t that bad after all. The water bowl full of mud and feathers let me forget my thirst and the odor coming from a rotting bone at the edge made my nostrils flare. Neither food nor water appeared to be desirable at this place.
The sun was the first one to convince me to overcome my disgust. Although it tasted foul I eventually drank the water in the hole. I missed my old bowl of clear water and the steady supply of good meat. Here we got it thrown over the fence by workers passing by. They rarely looked at us. It was a sudden change from an overdose of attention to almost nothing. Being left to ourselves little fights started breaking out between us, mainly over food which was rare and bad but essential nonetheless.
I was ready to believe that we are going to be left here for good when, in the second week of our stay, I got a whiff of a familiar scent. Followed by my siblings I made my way to the fence and there she stood, Cat! Lizaene next to her was talking to one of the food people, the rotting stink clung to him as if it defined him. I didn´t pay attention to them, unwilling to waste a second of this moment. She´s going to take me home, my real home!, I thought relieved. The sad almost desperate expression on Cat´s face told another story though. A feeling of helplessness washed over from her and suddenly I knew her hands were tied and I wasn´t going to leave this place with her.
When she left she didn´t turn back. Although I still felt the bitter taste of abandonment under all of it I could sense a lingering promise which had lain in Cat´s last good-bye: “I´m going to come back and get you out of here.” While I watched her go I hoped she would find that promise in herself and keep it. I will wait for you!
Heat burned my white fur as I lay on the dusty ground of the enclosure. There was no shade to give us relief and only when necessary we trotted to the mucky puddle of water on the edge. Flies that were hoping for leftovers on the days-old bone that was stripped of every last bit of meat were bussing around my ears and I shuck my head in annoyance. Almost two years had passed since I last saw Cat and despite my trust in her I started giving up on the belief of ever leaving this place with her. Since then my little pride and I have been moved to an open enclosure, bigger than the first one but we had to share it with nine others, which made the space feel crowded. Not just that, in a short time the enclosure turned into a dirty stinking place and none of the humans cared.
I was old enough to grow my mane but because of the little food around here the strands of long hair around my neck were scarce. Maybe that was good because those who finally have their mane often disappear right after a white skinned stranger comes to visit. They never come back.
Trying to ignore the cramps of my empty stomach I turned around so that my other side faced the suns merciless beams. Wearily I flicked my tail to get rid of some more flies. A distant rumble brought me on my feet in an instant. Suddenly there was movement in the small enclosure. Growling I sent two lions skittering back from the fence as we all charged towards it. A cloud of dust came along the row of enclosures similar to mine. Wherever it passed a thud was audible followed by aggressive snarls and sounds of fighting. I steeled myself for what´s to come. The monster born of hunger dug it´s claws deeper into my stomach. Encouraged by the smell of meat another lion dared to come close but I bared my fangs and told him off. He backed down, unwilling to challenge me. I had fought hard for my position. Strength is all that counts here, the weak die.
The white truck came into view, a man standing on the back of it. At our enclosure it stopped for a few seconds, a piece of meat flew over the fence and before the others moved I propelled forward digging my teeth into it. That´s the privilege of being the leader, of being the strongest – survival. The first bite is mine, no one will dare stealing this chunk from me. More thuds then the truck drove on and growling broke out interrupted by yelps while the others fought over the food. Whoever so much as looked at me the wrong way I gave a glare which sent them off trying their luck with the others. Only after I stilled my immediate hunger I left the rest for the others to share.
I saw Obi, weaker than he´s ever been, getting to a rib that had been stripped of all notable meat and licking it clean. As he had a general weak constitution he had quickly been picked out by the group to be on the bottom of the ranks. Being always the last to eat he grew even weaker by the day. For me there was nothing I could have done if I wanted to survive myself. I did not have the strength to protect us both. It was hard to watch him fade away but that´s how things were then, it´s a cruel world we live in made so even more by our captors.
More days passed during which we saw no human at all. I´ve grown to distaste the men coming by. All they did was throw old meat to us, never checking on us, never taking a minute to see the misery we have to call our life. We were nothing but tiny parts of a machinery for them, not worthy of being noticed, not worthy of being called living, feeling beings. Should we fail, we were replaceable, just another lion disappearing from the farm and we are completely at their non-existing mercy.
It was another one of these endless seeming days when my life should change one last time. We have gone without food for a couple of days again and were dozing off prepared for a third night of hunger. For the last hour the humming of a car had mixed with the background noise of the wind and insects buzzing around, nothing unusual probably another stranger looking for his future victim. I didn´t notice when the noise stopped in front of our enclosure, I simply didn´t care anymore. Doors clapped shut, steps on sand. “Oliver!”
The shout cut through my melancholy like a knife. I knew it! Two years since I last heard that voice, since I´ve heard my name spoken. My head shot up, ears turning, eyes focusing on the thin figure outside the fence. Within a second I was up and ran. I knew it! She promised! It was like breathing for the first time when her smell filled my nose and cast out the foul stink of this place. Despite the tears streaming over her cheeks I felt her happiness coming in waves from her to meet mine. I won´t let you go again.
Lizaene was with her too, her eyes scanning the enclosure for my brother. In the far back was movement, a bony figure struggling to get up, taking two steps and falling down again. He was at the end of his strength but alive. We made it brother!
This time she took me with her, just as promised, and now I am here, at Panthera Africa, together with my brother. We have a wide green open space with trees and platforms. Clean water, good food and loving care have brought us back to life. A fence separates us from the occasional group of Tourists, the time of petting is over, the one of abandonment too. We have finally found a place to just be ourselves, be lions – no toy, no prop, no machine.
Cat and Lizaene have created this sanctuary for us and more to come. They gave us a home, a real one where we don´t have to fear for our life, where we are safe from the cycle of breeding, petting, and hunting. Fueled by their love and compassion they set out to safe more like us from a cruel destiny.
Sadly, my sisters didn´t make it here, as they were pregnant when Cat and Lizaene got us out, too valuable for the breeders. I don´t know what happened to them. Like so many others they have probably fallen to the machinery Obi and I were lucky enough to escape. Although they are not with us anymore, they will always be part of my pride!”