by Kira Storm
“Many say, death is he end, that it is an event you head towards all your life until it ends. Little do they know that you can die infinite times before the physical death which is rather a salvation from the earthly struggles than an end. I´ve lived many lives and died many deaths before I reached my safe haven on this planet for I have seen the whole cycle of the exploitation of my species, been part of it. For you I´ll relive every moment, every pain, and every death, so that you might help stop the ever turning wheel.”
1st life – Born to be stolen
“What memories do you have of your parents? Did they love you? Did they raise you? Have they taught you how to make it in the world? Mine didn´t, they couldn´t. That joy had been taken from them as my sister and I were stolen from them before we even opened our eyes. We have never seen our mother, all that´s left of her is a faint memory of a smell that was poisoned with the stink of hunger and dirt. With her cries of agony and fury died my little heart, beating violently as I was dropped into a crate and carried away. I lost a life alongside my kin.”
2nd life – Loved to be petted
“Therefore, when I opened my eyes the first face I saw was a human one. Together with my sister I was raised by a woman who called herself Lizaene. Giving us food, warmth, safety we considered her our “almost mother”. It was also her who named us “Je t´aime” and “Jade” so she got pretty close but still she was human. That fact was an unbreakable barrier between us.
We were close nonetheless and grew even more so when sickness struck me down to the point that I barely hung onto my life. During that precarious period I lived with Lizaene who sacrificed all her spare time to take care of me and nurse me back to health. For her endurance and care I am eternally grateful. As soon as I was strong enough I was allowed to explore her backyard until they were sure I could join my sister again. I was happy to see her again after weeks apart but the time alone had had its benefits. All the extra food, the new space, the additional attention, and the deeper bond that had formed between patient and nurse. All that I had to share on returning to Je t´aime. Her excitement of seeing me again made me forget those trivial thoughts immediately. Nothing compares to the affection a sister can give, the feel of sisterhood, the strength it gives you. I learned that later especially, at that time it was just great to have my play/cuddle/sleep-mate back.
Our early childhood with Lizaene was one of love and coziness, of long naps and playful fights. It was a happy one without worries or obligations. I could have been contempt with that life but like the life before, this one also had to end too soon. The quiet life was ended with the first invasion, the first storm of strange faces, voices, hands. After that more and more followed each day, a never ending stream of people that slowly killed patience and energy reserves.”
3rd life – Freed to be blamed
“Getting used to something doesn´t mean you don´t feel the hardship anymore. Je t´aime and I were constantly exhausted. The time we got to ourselves was mostly spent sleeping to catch up with the lost sleep over the day. If it had not been for her warm body cradled next to me and the silent contempt with it in her aura I would probably have gone crazy or burned out before that. She was my anchor as I was hers in that suddenly crazy busy world.
Days blurred into weeks, then months as the days were as similar as they were stressful. Details of all of them are lost in my memory, all but one. It was late in the evening, last animal checks were done, my sister and I huddled together, ready for sleep when sudden footsteps caught our attention. Curious what it might be I raised my head to peer over Je t´aime´s back. A tall shadow approached our cage carrying a scent with it I couldn´t figure out. He stopped at the gate. With a click the lock opened but instead of entering the shadow hurried away, leaving our door ajar.
Exhaustion forgotten as curiosity took over I got to my feet to inspect the gate. Behind me my sister stirred. After a moment of hesitation she followed me. There was no one to be seen, heard, or smelled close by there was just that invitingly open door leading to somewhere. How could anyone resist that temptation? With my sister at my heels I slipped out of the cage into unknown territory. Cautiously we made our way across the wide paths that ran along other enclosures housing more animals. As we passed we heard hissing and growling from the other sides of the fences and steps much heavier than ours. For some minutes we simply wandered around when I suddenly caught the strange smell that clung to the shadow. My interest sparked I followed the trail crouched low aside my sister, our instincts had taken over. We made our way through some bushes and stopped in the last shadows of the plants. Not far from us lay a big black shape from which the smell of blood and death had come. What put this one apart from the others we knew was that the shape was human.
On light feet I drew closer. The man was completely naked, scratches marked his skin all over, and he didn´t move. Sniffing the corpse I climbed over it, not sure what to make of it. Je t´aime kept a good distance. My investigation got cut short by voices rising in the distance, flashlights pierced holes in the dark veil of night. I froze for a second, then jumped of the body and ran back into the cover of the bushes. In my haste I almost stumbled over a pile of neatly folded clothes. Together Je t´aime and I hid while steps approached. The voices got clearer and I could make out Lizaene´s along with a male´s voice I knew from around the place. “The alarm sounded about ten minutes ago, has anyone checked the cameras yet?” “No but they can´t be far.” Slowly we backed further away.
I knew they had found the body when a sharp hiss came from the spot accompanied by swearing. Shortly after the man spoke orders into a phone that ended with “The lions might have killed a man. We have to find them.” “I don´t believe it was them.”, defended Lizaene us. “Look at that man, he´s scratched all over.” “That´s just it, since when do lions undress their prey before attacking?” “We don´t have time for that now, the two have to be found as soon as possible.”, interrupted the man. “We see from there if they can stay.”
They found and caught us around midnight but we didn´t go back into our old cage. For days they kept us in a cage away from the part of the facility that was open to the public. Locked away while our fate was decided by the humans we waited. Each time when Lizaene visited she assured us her believe in our innocence. I am convinced she fought for us with tooth and nail and saved us again. Still, we were deemed too dangerous to be petted again. Our time at that project was up, another life came to an end when we were taken from our (almost) mother again. The pain of her loss is clearer in my mind, mainly because there were more memories connecting us and the loneliness that struck afterwards was –if not the strongest- the first I felt on a physical level. The drive from that facility to our new/old home, the place my sister and I originally came from, was a ride from an exhausting but relatively good life into hell.”
4th life – lifted up to be dropped again
“My next life wasn´t a real life for most of the time. From our sheltered life with Lizaene we were thrown into a place where survival was the only thing on one´s mind; where humans kept their distance, physically and emotionally; where food was rare, water bad, and enclosures dirty. In my fur hang a nasty smell that woke memories, first memories. This was the place my sister and I had been born, the circle started to close itself.
First my sister and I were kept separate from the other lions I could clearly smell. Only when we were fully grown they introduced us to a group of other females. Six in total we quickly formed an instinct-driven bond as it was natural for lionesses of a pride. Despite the company and strength the others provided it was still not an existence I would have called life. Always hungry, tired, dozing under the merciless summer´s sun with no shade around to allow relief, we simply lived on a physical level.
That all changed when the first male was introduced to our pride, when I started feeling life growing in my belly – it gave me back my own. Now it wasn´t just about me anymore, there were cubs on their way which would depend highly on me to survive in this harsh environment. Pulling myself together I fought for every bit of meat, rested when possible and drank lots of the stinky water even though it pricked my nose. I would not have been any good to them dehydrated and weak. Every day I told them they don´t have to worry, they won´t be alone when they came into this world. In truth it was an assurance for myself.
Je t´aime shared my joy and I shared hers as we both were carrying children under our hearts. The world appeared brighter somehow, everyday lighter as the one before. A fragile happiness grew alongside my unborn children inside me, one that let me consider my existence a life again. Until the humans noticed the state we were in.
We were separated from the others, put in small cages that were connected with the bigger area by drop-gates. It was a clean space, at least at the beginning. The food came more regularly too, at the beginning. I settled with the thought to bear my children there, it felt natural to do it away from the pride, to keep the wonder of birth to myself to cherish it in privacy. Little did I know what was to come…
Three warm bodies were cradled close to my belly, crawling over one another to reach the milk promising tits. Never have I been that exhausted and happy at the same time as I watched the small bundles with a tender gaze. Forgotten was the pain, was the struggle, was the hunger that had gnawed at me for days, they were all that mattered to me now. Gently I licked over their still wet fur. I had given birth to two handsome boys and a lovely girl, all three of a lighter color as their father had had a white coat. My heart overflowed with maternal love and pride, I made this, they were mine – for two whole days.
While I nursed my litter food still did not come. Not long and my milk would run dry. The thought of my children going hungry hurt me more than my rumbling stomach. That´s why my head shot up immediately as I heard the familiar sound of an engine. The white food truck neared and never had the smell of bad meat been so heavenly. I watched them come and haul a big chunk of red meat from the back. One of the workers grabbed it tight before throwing it over the fence. With a loud thud it landed outside my cage in the larger enclosure. In the same moment the drop-gate was opened, a path to the much needed food. I hesitated. Everything in me urged me to stay with the cubs, reminded me that it was my duty to protect them. But exactly that drove me finally to get up and charge outside to grab the food. Without it neither I nor they would make it much longer.
So I went for it to fetch the meat and bringing it back to them. But just as I passed the threshold I heard a loud clank as the gate slammed shut behind me. Shocked I whirled around, a snarl on my lips. It quickly turned into a furious roar as I saw the people from the truck entering the small cage and grabbing my cubs by the neck. I charged back to the gate, clawed at the unyielding iron bars, and called out for my children as they were dropped into a sack and thrown onto the truck. No!!! Stop! Give them back, they are mine! Mine…
Helpless I had to watch how the car drove away with my cubs, it felt like they had ripped not just them but a part of my heart from me. In agony I called after them for one desperate last time, knowing the humans won´t hear, won´t listen, won´t care. And so the circle closed as I cried for my lost children as my mother had cried for Je t´aime and me. Now I understood the terrible sound, it was the sound of a mother slowly dying the most horrible of deaths.”
5th life – revived to be killed all over
“How could they be so cruel?! I did not understand the world anymore. Weren´t humans good creatures? It was impossible to put the picture together, the kind Lizaene and these heartless men. How can they be of the same kind? How could she leave me here? A feeling of betrayal nestled into my heart. She left me to this hell and they took advantage of my trust in people. Well they had destroyed that with what they had done.
When Je t´aime returned to the pride a couple of days later I saw in her eyes that she was broken the same way I had been. Shattered into pieces I immediately felt the difference in her, a light that had burned through all the shit-storms of our life was blown out. She barely recognized me as I walked over to console her and find some comfort myself. But there was no spirit left in her to revive mine. All I felt in her was darkness and for some time I grieved with her.
I had never considered myself especially strong until I saw the weakness in some of the others. While I began to look ahead again others, like my sister, were broken beyond repair. Their eyes had lost their sheen, their spirit the will to live. They seemed stuck in a state of indifference. No matter how hard I tried to wake her up, my sister wasn´t there anymore, replaced by a stranger I had to get used to.
The loss of our litters brought us into heat again barely two weeks later, the biological cycle sped up by the intervention of the humans. With her new pregnancy I hoped for some life to return into Je t´aime and it did. I too could feel how it changed me to the better again. This time will be different, I thought as the months passed and we were separated again. They can´t, won´t put me through this twice. No creature can be that brutal.
Oh what joy I felt as I welcomed the two beauties into their life! Raising them alongside my sister´s cubs was something I could barely await. That I again had gone without food for a long time before giving birth was a herald of doom I had forgotten in my bliss. Of course the humans did not wait for long to remind me as they drove their of meat smelling truck up next to me. Finally I caught on to it and fear dug its claws into my flesh. When they threw the food over and opened the gate I remained where I was, where I belonged – with my cubs. The scent of meat woke a second monster in me, hunger. It shredded my insides into bits and didn´t hesitate to remind me of what would happen if I starve myself. They can´t put me through the same twice!, I prayed as I jumped up to retrieve the food.
I had to acknowledge that they could and did, that they were demons without feeling or compassion. The wheel kept on spinning for three years during which I died five more times as each and every litter of mine was taken to be raised by humans before being returned to the hell I was living in. It killed me to know their destiny would be as cruel as mine.”
11th life – lost to be found
“It´s a miracle that I did not go crazy. Somehow I held onto myself and got back up whenever they knocked me down. Maybe that made everything harder but I refused to give in to them. I would not allow humans to break me, to turn me into a mindless breeding machine. After all I am a living, breathing, feeling being. Despite my first worries I felt the same resentment in my sister. The repeated losses of her cubs had made her angry more than anything else. And with the last litter that had been taken she decided that that was it. No more, she said, I can´t take it!
The night of my next death was a clear one with a banner of stars stretching over the dark sky. A sound of splintering wood and chiming loose wire let our pride lift heads and stare into the darkness. My nostrils flared as I recognized the smell of a male coming our way. Nervousness spread through the pride. This was not right. I was at the other end of the group as the lion reached us. Shortly afterwards the scream of a lioness pierced my ears. I was there in no time, searching for my sister because it had been her, I was sure of it. When I found her she lay bleeding in front of the male, his paws and jaw colored dark.
Whether Je t´aime was attacked because she refused to mate with him or because he had just been out of control, beside himself, I don´t know. All I remember I the bleeding, dying body of my sister laying in the sand. Sorrow and fury hit me at the same time and I jumped forward, putting myself between my sister and the pride and him, crouched deep and snarling. He won´t get her or any of the others!, I swore. What a foolish act that was, standing up to a full grown lion who had just mortally wounded my sister within seconds. But I could not stand by and do nothing. In his eyes I saw the flames of anger and madness burning, he bared his teeth ready to strike me down as well.
Movement behind me let him hesitate. Next to me I felt the strong presence of another lioness stepping closer and standing at my side. A deep growl came from within her, making it clear that I would not fight alone. Her smell was familiar, we had often turned to each other for support. The fierceness and strength she held in herself had always helped me find my own again. What she found in my company she did not tell but I think it was belief in the goodness of the world, some softness against her rough exterior. Now she stepped up to protect me, support me once again as loss struck me. After her demonstration of loyalty I felt the tide shift, felt how the other lionesses pulled the lines closer together and form a single front against the intruder. That made him finally admit defeat and he retreated.
As soon as he was far enough away I turned to my sister. She hadn´t moved, her breath was ragged and weak. Curling up next to her I licked softly over her head like I had done with the cubs. And like with them I stood at her side until the end, until the humans came to pick her up. All the while the fierce lioness stood guard, staring into the darkness and young morning. Only when the truck appeared and drove into our enclosure I got up. A roaring engine, shouts, and people waving their arms on the back of the car sent us scattering away. When they came it meant death had struck and so it had. They lifted Je t´aime on the truck, her body limb and lifeless. Like so many times before I watched the car disappear with something I had loved on board, something that will never return to me.”
12th life – rescued to be at peace
“This is my final one, the one I am living now. Not long after Je t´aime´s death the white truck came again, carrying salvation. She missed it just by a couple of days. I couldn´t believe my senses as that small woman stepped out of the truck, Lizaene! Never would I have thought to see her again. Slowly I moved forward to the fence, still in disbelieve. From her expression I could tell she was happy too but there was also sadness. She knew about my sister.
As her eyes took in the misery of the place they grew even sadder as desperation mixed with it. In front of the fence she sank to the ground, hands balled to fists in her lap. “How am I supposed to choose one to come with Jade?”, she murmured. “I wish I could take them all…” Take? Is she going to take me with her, away from here?! Tentative hope and relieve spread through me. “How?”, asked Lizaene again. “Just give me a sign, anything!” At those words one of the lionesses got up, walked straight to the fence and lay down again, facing Lizaene. I´ve never before seen that fierce warrior with the torn ear and scarred face get willingly close to a human. But there she was, looking straight at Lizaene and telling her that she wanted to come with me, wanted to take my sister´s place at my side. I would not have chosen differently.
Zakara – how they called her – and I were rescued. We got an enclosure to ourselves with a house for shade, with a platform to climb, and with actual grass and trees. The smell was fresh and clean, so was the water and food. Not long after our arrival a vet came. He fixed us up again, cleared up the mess the unnatural amount of pregnancies had caused. Since that day we did not go into heat again, never would we have another litter, and I was glad. It meant the spinning wheel had finally stopped.
Despite the obviously changed conditions we lived in, the love and care we received, it took a long time for us to see humans not as a threat anymore. While I had it easier to allow the old bond grow back, Zakara held a strong resentment towards them. I can´t blame her. Through her trust in me she slowly came to a point of tolerance towards humans. It shows what a strong character she possesses.
What we´ve been through has welded us together. We trust each other with our lives, our pains, because we understand another, because we´ve been through hell and survived. Our fights are over, we´ll live our last lives in peace at Panthera Africa but we will never forget the ones we have lost and the ones we had to leave behind, who are still stuck in the cycle of breeding and petting, the profit machinery of humans who don´t hear, don´t listen, don´t care.”