Friday, December 23, 2011
Insight into an African Lion
Experiences often provide revelations and sometimes challenge us by raising questions. I am a huge advocate of the “experience” because I know what a powerful instrument it is to learning and developing the human spirit.
As I look back on my wonderful life I can point directly to many personal experiences which really have fueled my career, my passion for natural history and my lifestyle. I am not alone. I believe the same could be said by many of us and, indeed, many of those I most admire have grown from experiences and especially from those special ones.
Elberta Fleming, founder of the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center in Bay Village, Ohio and an iconic educator, summed up the power of the experience better than anyone. She proclaimed that the second most powerful experience was a discovery. The only better experience was a serendipitous experience. She defined the most powerful learning experience to be “a wonderful, unexpected discovery”.
Not all our experiences are wonderful but I am happy to report that the number of my wonderful experiences far outweigh the bad ones. Investing my time and energy in nature and birding ensures that the scale continues to tip in a favorable and enriching way.
In 2004 I was preparing to take a group to Kenya, East Africa on a Lake Erie Nature & Science Center ecotour. I decided to organize a mini tour to the Cleveland Zoo for the 15 participants. The idea was to try to find as many animals in the Zoo collections that we would likely encounter once we got Kenya.
I visited the Zoo on a sunny, warm late spring day to prepare for our planned African scavenger hunt. As I roamed the superb zoo collections I was drawn to the lion exhibit. The outdoor exhibit is a large, well designed landscape that has a plexiglass observation area with a knee wall. Here, zoo visitors can watch the African Lions clearly, and safely for all parties involved.
There was a small crowd of families with small children looking at the lions. The children were being children; pointing, yelling and jumping around with delight. A male lion was lounging among some rocks some distance from the viewing area. But a female was right up against and facing the plexiglass exhibit.
Despite the commotion on the viewer’s side of the exhibit, the female lion was motionless as if concentrating on something. The families moved on and after waiting my turn, I walked up to the glass to get my good look at the impressive cat. The cat had not yet moved a muscle. What could be so captivating?
As I watched the lion I noticed a slight movement out of the corner of my eye exactly where the lion was staring. Much to my surprise, standing still on the inside knee wall ledge of the exhibit was a newly fledged American Robin with speckled breast and all. I actually didn’t immediately think about the lion but rather the robin.
My wildlife rehabilitation experience kicked in and my reaction was to get the Robin out of harm’s way. The robin was at even greater risk, in a perfect position to encounter some human that would likely react in some inappropriate if not ill intended way. I was shocked that the group before had not seen the robin but they were so caught up in their close encounter with the lion that they never saw the bird at arm’s distance.
I reached slowly down and gently placed my finger behind and close to the robin’s feet and gently nudged the bird’s feet and it hopped up and perched on my index finger (baby birds have yet to learn to fear life’s dangers when they are recently fledged from the nest). About this time I remembered that the Lion was staring at the Robin. All in one motion I gently and slowly lifted the bird and watched the lion’s reaction.
As I lifted the robin the lion’s eyes stayed glued to the robin and she lifted her head with intense concentration. I lifted the bird farther up to the top of the 8 foot fence that surrounds the lion enclosure. The robin hopped off my finger onto the fence.
The lion continued to stare with head lifted at the robin on the fence. Then, the robin, oblivious to any danger, dropped harmlessly off the fence away from the viewing area and lion enclosure, away from the lion’s sudden death intentions. As soon as the robin disappeared over the fence the lion relaxed, looked about and slowly walked to where the male lion was sleeping and joined the siesta.
I think what I witnessed was the African Lion “game face”. I will never question the lion’s rightful position as “King of the Jungle”. The lion is a powerful and masterful predator. They command the respect of all creatures that share their place in the vast grasslands of Africa. The African Lion is dangerous, powerful and deadly. What I learned was that the lion commands so much respect because it is patient, focused, and determined.
We spent several days on Kenya’s Massi Mara and we got to watch and photograph many lions and a whole host of other animals of the Serengeti Plain. Our guides prepared us for the experience, telling us in no uncertain terms that we were to stay in the Land Rovers at all times. To leave the vehicles was extremely dangerous at any number of levels and the probability of losing one’s life was likely.
Lion’s, we were told, would kill a human in their grasslands. They wouldn’t eat you, but kill you to remove what the lion perceives as a threat and intruder. But not to worry, there would be a whole host of other critters standing by to consume your corps.
If the Cleveland Zoo lioness was that interested in a young robin, I could easily imagine what a great target I would make on the Mara. This is an experience that transcends the National Geographic Special. Having witnessed what I had on a warm, sunny afternoon in the safety of the zoo gave me a wonderful insight into the African Lion. More importantly it is a lesson that applies to all wildlife.
It is most important that we study wild things and limit our encounters to non invasive ones, not because of obvious danger but out of our utmost respect.