There’s a new book out called The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal about how chimpanzees console each other, prefer to share and nurse the injured. The notion that primates are compassionate and generous leads to the conclusion that humans are hardwired for empathy. I buy it!
That’s the thing about observing animals: you inevitably learn as much about us as you do about them. Take our trip this summer to an animal reserve.
We were horrified. A gang of six male lions had invaded our favorite corner of Africa and were committing gruesome crimes. They took over prides, one after the other, by killing the males, slaughtering all the cubs (yes, the babies) and then raping the grieving mothers. How depraved! How law of the jungle! How like an animal! How not like a man whom Shakespeare compared to an angel!
But wait a minute. Hold on. What about the Trojan women? Odysseus and the Greeks captured Troy, killed all the men and enslaved (raped) all the women. The Greeks didn’t have to kill the Trojan children – whom they enslaved – because human females are what scientists call “receptive,” even with kids in tow. Lionesses are only “receptive” once they have no more cubs to care for.
Bosnia. Ancient Carthage. Somalia. Kill the men, possess the women. Cry havoc!
So this is the tale of the Trojan lionesses.
Lionesses have bad table manners, which demonstrates they’re not sharers, but can also lead to tragic consequences, as we were about to learn.
We had just bundled into an open-air Land Rover, wrapped in layers of blankets and vests and scarves and newly acquired gloves. And a hot water bottle! The sun wasn’t up yet and it was winter in South Africa. The radio squawked.
“Some lionesses have killed a giraffe,” said Tom, our guide and driver, his South African accent sounding so civil in contrast to his news. “We’ll try to take a look.”
Then the trees and the rutted road and the clear-blue dry-season sky began toroar. Nature’s own surround sound. Roar answered roar. A lion food fight was underway, the roars getting louder, meaner, more frightening. We clutched our hot water bottles.
We were rushing and bouncing and banging into a lion version of Richard III, a tale replete with visions of dynasty, the apparent murder of princes, and a tall-stack breakfast of giraffe meat.
We were staying at Londolozi, one of the great lodges in Africa, located on the edge of Kruger National Park in South Africa. Tom had known for years the lionesses who killed the giraffe, knew when they were born, when they had their first dates, that these moms had followed the unfortunate giraffe into the territory ruled by the gang of six lions, dominated by Satan, so dubbed by the guides because he not only killed other lions – but ate them. Satan is a cannibal. Which we were told is as rare in the world of lions as it is in the world of men.
When the lionesses took down the giraffe, they should have remembered their manners. But they didn’t. There were seven lionesses and their cubs. They couldn’t all eat the prime parts of the giraffe at the same time. So they fought, and growled. That deep, thrilling, terrorizing growl that carries for miles and miles. Two of the male lions heard it and knew what it meant.
“The males came in from the north,” our radio crackled.
Perhaps the lionesses stood and fought because they had numbers: Seven females against two males gave them confidence. A thunderstorm of roars. It seemed to move the earth, as Hemingway said. Then the sound changed. Running. Confusion. What was happening?
“The lionesses are running away,” Tom said.
We caught up with the lionesses a few minutes later at a small watering hole. Being cats, they were washing their paws and their faces, getting the blood off. They huddled together, shoulder to shoulder, like a family caught in a storm. We counted seven lionesses and three cubs.
“There are supposed to be six cubs,” Tom said. “Where are the missing cubs? Hiding or dead or dying in the grass?”
The missing cubs, probably murdered, were the princes in the Tower who were slaughtered by Richard III to clear his way to the English throne. Richard was usurping a kingdom, Satan – a pride, both using the same merciless tools.
Having washed and drunk their fill, the defeated army of lionesses began a long, single-file retreat, constantly looking back over their shoulders, putting as much space between themselves and the killers as they could. Their wounds were still bleeding: cheeks, noses, rib cages, flanks.
The crippled pride crossed paths with a small herd of giraffes. One lioness gave chase, but the others were in no mood for another giraffe hunt. They were not going to make the same mistake again before the blood from the first had even dried. The hunter, finding her hunt unsupported, soon gave up and returned to the others.
Here’s where you see yourself in the animal kingdom: in the posture of defeat – shoulders hunched; the eyes of failure – sad and ashamed; the gait of ignominious retreat – slow and plodding. We were inching along in our Land Rover beside this pathetic family, right next to them, and my heart was aching for the mothers of the missing cubs.
So, we people … we gain empathy from the jungle, but we also gain blood lust and an urge to conquer. It’s all in our genes.
As for the defeated army of Trojan Lionesses, we would learn that their cubs were hiding! The mothers would go back for them, and the wars would go on. One of “our” lionesses was later killed fighting the males for the body of a hippo. Meanwhile our own casualty reports keep mounting.
We continue to evolve but do we advance?