The days of yore, part three

lion cubs facing off
Some time back, after posting a bunch of especially creepy pics, I added the above image and mentioned that I should do a post about it. As you can see, I’m right on top of that, having taken only nine weeks to get to it.

It is, like all images to be seen in this post, a zoo pic, the dreaded ‘captive’ subjects that seem so dire to people at times – real nature photographers certainly should be out capturing all their images in “the wild.” Yeah, whatever – by all means, don’t tell anyone they’re wild if they’re not, but if you can get images that people like, and/or that tell an interesting story, what does it matter where they’re obtained?

lion cubs looking coolAs my own example, I give you a warm christmas eve day, 2006, at the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro. For some peculiar reason visitors were sparse that day, and the cubs, about eight weeks old then, were having their first outdoor session, having spent all their previous lives in the birthing den with the mother. The day was brilliant and clear, the temperature around 20° C (68° F.) And the cubs were making the most of it, tackling their folks, stalking one another, and pouncing on grass and twigs – basically, exactly what domestic kittens do at that age, but for some reason it’s far more fascinating and entertaining when you see wild species doing it, even though they could hardly be called ‘wild’ in this case.

There were four in total, and another test that was taking place was seeing how well dad would react to them. Now, I have to admit that I’m not exactly sure if the male lion was, indeed, the sire of the sprogs – zoos are just as likely to use artificial insemination to ensure viable genetic variation, as well as dealing with potential personality clashes. You just can’t slap together opposite sexes of any species and expect them to get it on, or even get along, any more than we can expect this of humans. Bottom line, ‘dad’ might not have been, but the staff were still waiting to see if he would serve the purpose anyway, since this was actually his first introduction, outside of controlled conditions, to the cubs. In the wild, male lions might kill the offspring of another male when taking over a pride, nature’s way of ensuring less competition for his own genetic line. It may seem barbaric to us, but that’s because we have our own instincts – curiously, they’re so strong regarding protecting infants that we even cross over into other species.

So, how was ‘dad’ dealing with the cubs?

lion father and cub chillin' together
Pretty damn well, to be honest. He could not have been more mellow and still been conscious, and while the cubs weren’t climbing all over him as they were with their mother, they probably could have without incident. In this shot, the cub had been perched atop the rock getting into pounce position when dad looked around, causing the cub to adopt the innocent, “just hanging out” look seen here. It’s never a good idea to let your prey know you’re going to attack them, especially when they outweigh you by such a huge margin. When their back is turned, however…

lion cub about to pounce on father
The cub never did complete the maneuver it was contemplating here; perhaps it realized that it did not have the appetite necessary. While we were there, we didn’t actually see any of the cubs wrestling with dad at all. But of course, there were quite a few tussles amongst themselves, and mom certainly didn’t escape their attentions.

lion cubs attacking their oblivious mother
She was just as mellow as dad, mostly ignoring their feeble attempts at matricide, which encouraged them to stalk one another more often; this might even have been intentional. She was not without the instinct of every mother everywhere, however, as some of the cubs found out when they decided to direct their attention near her face. Suddenly, it became the ideal time to keep the kids groomed, despite their (also typical among species) struggles to avoid such ministrations.

lion mother washing a protesting cub
You may have noticed a difference in angle between the two pics above of momma, and that’s because the zoo had multiple vantages over the lions’ area; we switched back and forth as necessary, though I tended to stick with the angle seen most often in these pics because of the lighting.

Like most zoos, there are some restrictions on getting nice, natural-looking, and uncluttered compositions. The enclosures still have to keep their charges safely within (and, just as much, the less intelligent members of the human species out,) and this means that very often you will have something that just doesn’t work: bad lighting, or a poor perspective on the interesting behavior, or simply evidence that it is, indeed, a zoo.

backbiting lion cubs
Yet, there’s a benefit to working with captive animals that you can take advantage of as well, since animals that are habituated to your presence are more likely to engage in behavior that is extremely hard to capture in the wild. Wild animals may not ‘let their guard down’ in areas where they can be seen easily, and may well be sensitive to your presence, or at least suspicious that something is different. So capturing some adorable interaction can be a lot easier with captives…

lion male and female nuzzling affectionatelyThis is exactly what it appears to be – a very affectionate nuzzling, including some gentle nibbling on one another. I was there with The Girlfriend and The Younger Sprog, and you can imagine the reactions at this point, as well as the frantic instructions to, “Look! Look!” and, “Get it! Get it!” They could hear the shutter snapping as well as I could, or at least they should have been able to, but it’s possible that normal sensory functions were somewhat overwhelmed at that point. They were, naturally, getting their own shots as all this was taking place.

And as I said, visitors were rather thin that day, so very few people saw this particular spectacle, and not many more got to see the cubs’ first day out. This was eight years ago, and the cubs may well have been sent on to other zoos, since most decent parks now exchange animals; the trade in capturing wild specimens, something that Gerald Durrell once took part in, has now halted among all reputable establishments, except in rare circumstances. The mother succumbed to cancer a year or so ago, but I noticed as I was attaching the link for the zoo (repeat) that a new pride has been born recently; I honestly cannot say if they were born to one of these cubs or not. We haven’t been back since that trip in 2006, don’t ask me how we managed that, but it looks like we’re going to have to try again soon.

I leave you with my favorite shot, as an impish cub halted in his grass gnawing to focus directly on me and the long lens staring down, curious as to what I was doing up there above the rock wall. Any emotions that we think we see in this expression are almost certainly imaginary, but if you see a feline version of David Attenborough, narrating a segment on the peculiar habits of humans, well, you can be excused…
expressive lion cub portrait