by Kira Storm
“Hola! Mi nombre es Baguira and I am here to share my story as well; of how a caged bird finally got to spread its wings and fly, of a heart that never stopped dreaming, of a spirit that never gave up, of a soul that returned home and emerged stronger than ever. It´s a story of gratefulness and of unspeakable luck. It´s my life.
I wasn´t born in Africa, the air I first breathed was the humid air of Argentina. I also wasn´t born to be bred again or hunted down in a canned hunt. I was born to be sold and bought for entertainment. From one cage to another, alone, too young to know more than the loss of two mothers – an animal and a human one.
You might think that I was afraid, that I was cowering in a corner with the head hung low, that´s not me. I´m not a frightened rabbit, never was. Although I was too young to remember more than smells of my real mother, she told me one thing: “You are a lioness, queen of the animal realm. Never forget who you are, that´s something they can´t take from you.” These words never left me and so I did not fear the future, did not cry out, did not hide. Instead I carelessly played with a straw caught in my tail´s tip when my crate tipped and I slid down the wooden floor. My reflexes saved me from landing hard on my butt. Paws hit rough boards and eyes looked out through iron bars on strange faces.
The humans of my new home were truly peculiar beings. One of them had a ghostly white face with teardrop markings on his face. His hair a flaming red and the colorful clothes he wore were way too big for him. Everyone seemed very out there with their appearance. Glitter on faces and tight costumes, golden buttons on a red jacket, flashing teeth and wide eyes – that was to be my new family.
We were a really mismatched family of all ages, races, believes, kinds. There was a couple I soon began to call the “core-family”. They seemed to be the leaders of the pride, sending everyone running with only two words. I´ve also never seen them laugh or smile. Worries always clouded their faces and deep wrinkles created ugly lines on their foreheads. The man had a harsh dark aura around him and was the only one that could bring me to back away from the bars when he came by. His wife was as bad but in a different way. Her shouts and unfriendly words were driven by caring, by struggle and worries. I believed she put on the tough show because she thought that was the only way to keep the rest of the pride together.
In the end she failed anyways, but I am skipping ahead. There were six other humans to our pride. An old woman who smelled strongly of burned herbs. Whenever she entered the big striped tent which swallowed everyone on a daily basis just to spit them out again looking exhausted but happy – apart from the core-family – she carried a crystal ball with her. Around her neck hung dozens of pendants and even a rabbit´s foot. Everyone called her “Fortuna” and they believe she can see the future when staring into her ball. But why staring into a ball and wondering about an unsure future, when you could roll the ball around instead and have some fun in the present? But humans are weird about that, always concerned about what´s to come and I never was allowed to chase the glittering orb.
The twins that ran around in their tight suits didn´t speak any Spanish. Their tongue was a rough one, they were Russian and incredible flexible. One day I saw them walk on all fours but bent the wrong way. I spent the following days rolling around on my back, trying to figure out how they managed to do that. They kept their secret though.
Of course there is the weird red-haired man who never seemed to find clothes that fit him. He was there so people could laugh at him, an ungrateful task, they could just lend him some fitting clothes, couldn´t they? Two left to go. One of them was a dragon, spitting fire in the air; was an omnivore, eating a variety of long objects and pulling them out of his mouth again; was a monkey, always throwing things around, often burning things. All these tricks that made these humans so weirdly special were put on display for others of their kind to watch and enjoy. They were a circus and I was supposed to join in in the show. All this was explained to me by Thiago, the last and best of them all.
He knew that life is a joyful thing. When it was his time to feed me he always did a little show for me, pulling the meat out of thin air. Then he usually stayed while I chewed on my bone and began talking to me. It´s thanks to him that I had gotten a fairly good picture of the circus hierarchy and their business. My part in all of this was supposed to be the new main attraction. The core-family wanted to train me to perform with them in the show. The thought didn´t appeal to me, what queen performs tricks for the entertainment of the folk? But then, what queen lives in a cage?
My cage was one of three and smelled of sickness and death. It had the faint odor of an old lion clung to its wooden boards. A fluffy dog and a monkeys were my neighbors, both seemed to have most of their exhausting life already behind them. I felt quite young and out of place. Everything around me looked like its best days were long gone, from the tent to the costumes and the equipment. Patches and tape bandages were used to hold the ripping seams together. Although it was supposed to be a place of laughter and fun the circus´ campsite always looked sad to me – maybe because the people all carried a sadness within them. Even Thiago could not hide that side of him from me although he did his best to keep a smile on his face until he appeared in front of my cage with tears in his eyes.
“This was my life!”, he exclaimed in desperation. “I don´t know anything else besides the circus, what am I supposed to do?!” With his head in his hands he sank on the ground, that tall lean man suddenly looked very fragile and small. “Where shall I go? I have nothing besides this, no one. This is the end!” Desperate eyes looked up at me, searching in my wondrous gaze an answer to his question. If he would have been able to listen he would have heard my answer: “All you need is trust in yourself and your path will find you. This place is not made for us so go and make yourself your own home, you are a magician after all.” Although I don´t believe he understood Thiago eventually calmed down, wiped his tears away, and stood up. “I´ll miss you, little princess.”, he whispered. As he turned to leave I cried after him, feeling this was a good-bye of the forever kind. With a crooked smile he turned flicking his right in a dramatic gesture and snapping his fingers. In the next moment a meat-block had appeared in his left and he threw it through the bars into my cage. Happily I pounced on it and dug my teeth in the juicy food. When I looked up he was gone. We never saw each other again.
The next day was dominated by an uncommon silence. All but one trailer had gone over night, the tent was packed up in a heap of cloth and metal rods. Only the core-family was left and supervised a group of men hauling the tent and other equipment away on a big truck. Finally they came for the cages. They carried the dog away who didn´t even wake from his nap followed by the monkey. Doors were shut, hands shaken, and shoulders slapped. Then the truck and the strangers left leaving me behind with the grim man and the dreadful woman, now the core-family was them and me, we were all that was left…
The tent was never built up again but the show went on, it was in their blood. Without acrobats, clowns, and magicians I was the only attraction and my trailer the stage. They towed it behind their Car from town to town, from village to village. Wherever we stopped the man set out shouting: “Ladies and gentleman, come close, have a look! Exotic beauty, the heart and blood of the far away Africa – a lion. Come, come, never will you get this close!” And as his words drew the people in the woman stepped up, collecting coins and paper slips from the spectators before allowing them to enter the area around my trailer. From there on I was the center of a growing crowd of excited humans. In a day I saw so many faces, heard so many “Oh”s and “Ah”s and “Over here!”s that the faces and people just all blurred together. Flashes of cameras and posed smiles, hands waving to attract my attention… they looked like foolish monkeys. It could have really annoyed me if I did not remembered my mother´s words. What they do, how they make fools of themselves does not have to bother me. What they do is below me, I´ll not let them get to me. Therefore I did not listen to their calls, did not flinch at the flashes of light, and did not pose for them. Blending them out I stared into the distance and let my thoughts carry me away.
From day to day it got harder to believe that I was a South African queen. I might have looked like one but was never treated as such. Caged in a 1.5 x 2 meter trailer in which a water trough took up around a third of the space I soon had barely enough room to stand up and turn around. Not once did I get to step outside. For seven long years this was my life.
Splashes of water hit me in the face and woke me from an exhausted slumber. I often felt tired and I blamed it on the bad food. The meat I got was bled dry and seemed to lack the right nutrients. Hissing I got to my feet jumping out of the way of the wet spear that had pierced my flank. The man on the other side of the bars payed me no attention while he sprayed water all over my trailer to flush out the feces and leftover bones. When he finally finished he threw the hose careless to the ground. Then he gripped the handles on the side of the trailer. Although I knew the routine, knew what was coming I was never prepared for the violent jerks of the floor as he tried to get as much water out of the cage as he could. Afterwards he filled up my water bowl which hadn´t been scrubbed since I moved in. All the while he didn´t spare me a glace. In his eyes there wasn´t a living being in the cage, just a money-maker.
He left after the clean to his morning routine of breakfast, cigarette, and beer. Shaking drops of water out of my coat I settled back on the wet floor. I hated these mornings, they were the worst of the month.
After breakfast the “show” was set up and they began gathering people again. It was a slow day though and by noon all of us were frustrated and hungry. Just as they wanted to close for a lunch break two women neared who curiously eyed the caravan with the faded circus logo. Getting his act back together the man straightened and strode over to them, beckoning them to come closer and witness “the unmatched aura of the most iconic predator”. The women followed him and they exchanged coins before stepping up to my cage. Tiredly I blinked at them without seeing. They were just like everyone else. I waited for the exclamations of awe but the gasp that reached my ears was different, unexpected. It made me blink again and focus on their faces. Their expressions mirrored the shock in their gasp.
Horror crept into the two pairs of eyes that took in my appearance, my dirty fur, the sunken in skin at the hips, and the lines where spine and ribs were showing. No exercise and malnourishment for seven years had deprived me of any muscle mass worth speaking of. The body they looked at was sad, the confinement inhumane, and the entire charade horrific. I knew that but since that day I had been the only one. Before the two ladies, no one had truly seen me.
After taking in the picture for a couple more minutes they turned and talked shortly with my captors. They did not to like the questions the two ladies were asking and soon sent them away with harsh words and rude gestures. I watched them go with a sinking heart; one of them took out her phone and dialed a number.
The next day they returned with a man between them. Watching from afar while my captors kept a suspicious eye on them they argued and pointed at me. The strange man smelled of rubbing alcohol and scents of all kind of animals clung to him. He ventured closer alone but did not approach my watchdogs. His gaze was methodical and analytic as it scanned me and the trailer within seconds. Then he turned and the three walked off again. When they came a third time, they brought more people and a big car. When they came, they came to take me with them.
It was the strange man that I got to live with. From my small trailer I moved into a larger area. Still a cage, still iron bars and a concrete floor but at his place I could for the first time in forever take more than two steps in a row. He gave me some days to settle in before he started poking me with needles, sneaking pills in my meals that finally had some taste to it and filled my tummy. Slowly I began to regain strength and muscle mass as the weakening tiredness left me. Pacing along the bars I felt how with strength life came back into my body, how joy of such a simple thing as walking filled me to the brim. The man, who I learned was an animal healer, had truly worked wonders for me and was kind enough to work one last one for me.
About a year after he rescued me out of the trailer and from the freak-show I was forced into he sent me on a long trip. Through most of it I slept. As I woke in a wooden crate I felt the familiar rumble of a car on dirt roads but the air smelled different. I felt in my bones that I was not in Argentina anymore.
After shaking twists and turns the crate was opened and bright light hit my eyes. The scent of green, of grass and trees, of sand and wood, of animals and humans filled my nose while my vision adjusted to the brightness. In front of me, stretched out from left to right of my field of vision, was grass, were bushes, were trees. Slowly I got up and stepped to the edge of the crate. I sniffed the air once more before setting my front paw down in the ground, felt the sand and dirt under my feet, and as I took the last step into the new environment I felt my heartbeat resonating with the beating of the earth´s life force, felt it welcoming me, welcoming me home. In that instant I knew I was in South Africa, knew that what I had under my paws was natural, was right, was home.
The feel of a soft surface underneath my paws was amazing, the walk through grass like a dream. Countless times I had imagined how it would be to jump out of the trailer and weave through the trees and now there I was living a dream that had appeared out of reach all my life. Sitting next to the wooden house that stood in my new enclosure I took it all in, the reality of a fantasy. I waited for it to disappear, to dissolve into nothingness with the waking in the mornings, but it never did. On my forth day I climbed up the platform at my house, breathed in the African air, and let out a loud long roar. “I am here, I am home, and I am staying!” Up there, from where I could see into the neighboring enclosures, I could finally feel the truth my mother´s words had held. Although she had never set a foot into this country which is our home, she knew in her bones, in her soul that she and I are part of Africa, that we are queens, and that´s something that can´t be taken away from us. No matter how awful we are treated we can´t be changed into something less.
At Panthera Africa I got to meet great people but also other lions which I had never before. They also introduced me to balls which are so much fun to chase around the enclosure or hold onto as you roll around. The lifetime of confinement in that small trailer had me missing out on all the fun the world has to offer. Now that I got released of the chains I have a lot of catching up to do!”