Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My

Facebook informs me that yesterday was World Lion Day, so I think it’s appropriate to jot down a few thoughts on Cecil the lion, among other things.

Cecil the lion and park icon. Photo: African Bush Camps

Over the last few years, a lot of my scholarly research has led me to hunting manuals such as Edward, Duke of York’s The Master of Game and bestiaries such as the Aberdeen Bestiary. I’m fascinated by their implications for medieval literature, for these incredibly detailed (and often beautifully illustrated) texts reveal much about medieval attitudes towards animals and their relationships with the natural world and with humans (as well as what it meant to be human).

Bodleian Alexander manuscript (MS Bodl. 264)

A hunting scene from the Bodleian Alexander manuscript (MS Bodl. 264)

I still fondly remember reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for the first time as an undergraduate and absolutely loving the symbolism of the three hunts described in that fourteenth-century text and their relationship to a similar hunt occurring in Sir Gawain’s bedchamber. In my Middle English surveys now, I love working through these scenes, line by line, with my students, talking about what the details reveal about medieval hunting practices (and how they continue to inform our understanding of the bedroom “hunts”).

Another favorite was Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet “Whoso List to Hunt, I Know where is an Hind”, particularly once I was able to compare it to its Petrarchan source. I loved the metaphor of the romantic chase reimagined as a hunt.

Of course, there is a certain irony in my love of hunting scenes in medieval literature.

I don’t hunt.

I never have, and I never will. I’ve never had any kind of desire to do so.

There’s a scene in the 1995 film Powder in which the main character (a naive yet profoundly wise figure) goes on a hunting trip, and he is horrified when one of his companions shoots a deer. He has special powers which allow him to extend the suffering of the deer to its killer. I’ve only seen it once, but this particular scene has stayed with me over the years.

I’m not necessarily against hunting. Animal populations lacking predators can spiral out of control, decimating their habitats and causing great suffering as the animals compete for rapidly decreasing resources. I get that.

But I hate what happened to Cecil the lion. This was recreational hunting–done for the thrill of the chase and the adrenaline of killing.

I can’t help but think of a moment in Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game”:

“I wanted the ideal animal to hunt,” explained the general. “So I said, `What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?’ And the answer was, of course, `It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason.”‘

“But no animal can reason,” objected Rainsford.

“My dear fellow,” said the general, “there is one that can.”

“But you can’t mean–” gasped Rainsford.

“And why not?”

“I can’t believe you are serious, General Zaroff. This is a grisly joke.”

“Why should I not be serious? I am speaking of hunting.”

“Hunting? Great Guns, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder.”

The irony of this story (sorry, spoilers) is that the hunter (Rainsford) becomes the hunted as General Zaroff grows tired of the ease of pursuing lesser creatures. The distinction in this story between humans and animals hinges on one point: humans, unlike other animals, can reason.

But are non-human animals truly devoid of reason? (And if they are incapable of reasoning, are we still justified in killing them for sport?) What is the relationship–or rather, the difference–between humans and non-human animals? Why, when General Zaroff tracks Rainsford with the intent to kill him, is it considered murder, but not so when he hunts other creatures?

In the eighteenth century, David Hume asserted that “no truth appears to be more evident, than that beast are endow’d with thought and reason as well as men.” A century prior, René Descartes wrote that “[A]fter the error of those who deny God, there is none that leads weak minds further from the straight path of virtue than that of imagining that the souls of beasts are of the same nature as our own.”

If you’re looking for a definitive answer here as to whether or not non-human animals are capable of rational thought, you’ve come to the wrong place. I don’t know, although my gut tells me they are.

I can, however, tell you about lions in medieval literature.

A lion playing the violin in the Breviary of Renaud de Bar, France, 1302-1303

I love the story of Yvain, told first by Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century. Here’s an excerpt from David Staines’s translation:

Absorbed in his thoughts, Sir Yvain was riding through a deep forest when he heard a loud cry of pain from the trees. He turned in the direction of the cry. When he reached a clearing, he saw a lion and a serpent, which was holding the lion by the tail and scorching his haunches with burning fire. Sir Yvain spent little time looking at this strange sight. When he considered which of the two he would help, he decided to go to aid the lion, because a serpent with its venom and treachery deserved nothing but harm. The serpent was venomous, and fire was darting from its mouth, so full of evil was the creature.

Intending first to kill the serpent, Sir Yvain drew his sword and advanced. He held his shield before his face as a protection against the flames gushing from the serpent’s throat, which was more gaping than a pot. If the lion attacked him later, there would be a fight; yet whatever happened after, he still wished to aid the lion. Pity urged him and pleaded that he help and support the noble and honorable beast.

Once Yvain rescues the lion, it becomes as docile and playful as a puppy, and soon Yvain gains the epithet “The Knight with the Lion” as the lion refuses to leave his side. Even when Yvain attempts to restrain the lion in order to take part in a challenge, the lion breaks its bonds and rushes to save Yvain (and just in the nick of time, too!).

The passage above reflects medieval thought about the serpent, which it associated with Satan, as well as the valorization of the lion. Most bestiaries list the lion first among all animals because according to the Aberdeen Bestiary, “the Greek word for lion is translated ‘king’ in Latin, because the lion is the king of all the beasts.”

In other medieval romances, lions occasionally appear in more conventional roles. In one (sorry, can’t recall the name of the romance at the moment), a captured lion gets loose in Arthur’s court while all of the seasoned knights are away (out hunting, if I remember correctly) and menaces Queen Guinevere. A young untried knight proves his mettle by defeating the lion. And of course, there’s the Middle English romance of Richard the Lion-Hearted, where the titular character earns his epithet by reaching into a lion’s throat to pull out the still-beating heart and then consuming it (with just a dash of salt).

Peterborough Psalter

Image from the Peterborough Psalter–either of Richard the Lion-Hearted or Sampson (can’t remember, sorry)

While lions once did inhabit parts of Europe, none would have existed in that region during the Middle Ages, although people who traveled widely through the known world would have brought back descriptions or even images of lions, and captured lions would have been presented as gifts to kings and other powerful leaders. Several lions are featured in heraldry; perhaps the most famous appear on the Plantagenet coat of arms.

Henry II of England’s coat of arms

In medieval romances, then, lions were viewed as powerful and noble creatures, dangerous to their enemies, but meek to their friends. To conquer a lion was to demonstrate great strength.

A lot of these ideas still persist in our society today, and films such as Disney’s Lion King help to perpetuate these concepts. So it’s not that surprising that someone would pay tens of thousands of dollars to have the opportunity to hunt a lion.

But what does this say about our society? What does it mean that a person would rather spend this kind of money to travel far from his home and pay others to lead him to the animal (or in this case, lead the lion out of the wildlife preserve to the hunter)? That he would then kill the animal and proudly display pictures alongside the head of the lion?

Multiple friends circulated a recent op-ed in the New York Times, “In Zimbabwe, We Don’t Cry for Lions,” that responded to Cecil’s killing. I found it an interesting read that offered an important perspective. Goodwell Nzou grew up in Zimbabwe, and when he learned of Cecil’s death, “the village boy inside me instinctively cheered: One lion fewer to menace families like mine.” Nzou went on to share anecdotes of encounters with lions–usually deadly–leading up to his conclusion:

We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people.

He has a point–several, actually. Lions are dangerous creatures.

Here in Colorado, we have mountain lions. Although I have yet to see one, I’ve read reports of them coming down into urban areas and making off with domestic animals–even entering houses through pet doors in search of food. We also have bears. I’ve seen several–one running across a highway in Estes Park early in the morning, and another high in a tree alongside the same highway at the other end of Estes Park. A few weeks after my daughter was born, we saw a mother bear and her two cubs walking along a path as we drove back from Bear Lake.

At no point did I feel endangered–largely because I was in a car each time, and at a safe distance. And I imagine bears would rather feast on berries than on me.

I’ve encountered bears while hiking along the Appalachian Trail as well, but again, always at a safe distance. We knew to place our food in bags high in trees each night. Most summers, we had two of our dogs hiking with us. One was a white German shepherd named Ivory. Sweet dog, but lacking in brains. She loved to chase anything and everything, including a bear. Good thing that black bear never bothered to look behind it. Another summer, we were amazed (and relieved) that Ivory did not catch the scent of the large black bear that wandered past the shelter on its way to some berry patches.

While camping outside of Baxter Park in Maine (near the base of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail) one summer, we were awakened by a large bear foraging in the trash bin right next to our RV (the previous campers had thrown their leftovers in before departing, so the bear found itself quite the feast), and the next day, the park rangers had captured and tranquilized the bear. We were able to stand several feet from it, marveling at its girth.

Bears do kill humans. A friend recently posted an article about a Grizzly bear that is suspected of killing a Yellowstone hiker. A bear has been captured in the area, and if it is found to have human remains in its digestive tract, it will be “euthanized.” (Why not just say “killed”?)

But here’s the thing–the bear has cubs. Chances are that the bear was defending its territory and protecting its offspring. But that doesn’t matter in the larger economic picture:

Julena Campbell, a Yellowstone spokeswoman: “We have 3.5 million people coming to Yellowstone each year and risking those lives is not a chance we’re willing to take.”

And later:

Campbell said the bear would have a better chance of surviving if there had been witnesses when Crosby was attacked who could confirm that the animal was defending her cubs. Because the attack lacked witnesses, park officials are unwilling to risk another attack without knowing what provoked the first one, she said.

I admit that my experience with bears is nothing compared to that of Nzou. I grew up in a developed world at a distance from such dangerous beasts, and even when I ventured into their territories, I did so out of choice rather than economic necessity, armed with strategies to either avoid bears entirely or to prevent myself from becoming a target. And bears are typically shy creatures, more prone to run away than to turn and fight. Lions are clearly the greater threat, especially for a human population that must co-exist with them in the same habitat and which is a potential food source.

I’m still bothered by Cecil’s death, though, as well as one of Nzou’s final comments:

Don’t tell us what to do with our animals when you allowed your own mountain lions to be hunted to near extinction in the eastern United States. Don’t bemoan the clear-cutting of our forests when you turned yours into concrete jungles.

He’s right–we have destroyed so much natural habitat here in the US, and the public outcry over Cecil’s death seems to be excessive (Nzou calls it “an absurdist circus”), especially when we consider the number of lions killed annually without a whimper from the media–although I am glad to see that the media attention has resulted in money being donated to the maintenance and preservation of wildlife habitats such as where Cecil once dwelt.

But just because we have destroyed (or nearly destroyed) the ecology here, does that strip us of any responsibility elsewhere in the world?

To what extent are the lions reacting to human encroachment on their territories and the resultant scarcity of resources? The world is out of balance, and so we shouldn’t be surprised when nature bites back.

I’m not saying that Zimbabweans deserve to die by lions or that Yellowstone tourists should be dismissed as easy prey for bears–far from it. Rather, we need to find better ways to either co-exist with these dangerous creatures (all creatures, really) or to find ways to prevent our paths from crossing. It’s not just our world, and lions and bears play a vital role in the world ecology–even if we do not fully grasp the extent of it. We’re constantly learning more about non-human animals and their capacity for intelligence.

I admit that it is easy for me to sit inside my well-constructed house on the other side of the world and pontificate about these creatures and our need to just get along. But I hope that more conversations can take place. We hunt–but so do these creatures–for survival as well as for entertainment. I think that we can learn a lot about ourselves through the lions and bears. Perhaps we’ll find that we’re not really that different. And I can’t help but wonder, given that nearly every day brings more news of racial violence, if we really questioned why we hunt, we might find some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. In Richard the Lion-Hearted, for example, Richard justified slaughtering and devouring Saracens by claiming that they were not human (and weren’t similar arguments made in support of slavery?). We’re so desperate to separate ourselves from the “animals” that I wonder if we aren’t becoming just as–if not more–violent as they are purported to be. According to Karl Steel in How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages,

Humans attempt to form themselves as human by (mis)recognizing themselves as ‘not animal,’ and then by subjecting themselves to the impossible demands of living up to this ideal self, one distinctively rational, ensouled, responsible, linguistic, and so on. Faced with a constitutive and irreparable disparity between themselves and their human self-image, humans assert that animals lack what uniquely afflicts humans. To give this assertion strength, they treat animals ‘like animals’; as instruments available for labor or slaughter, violence which does not count as morally significant violence and which therefore qualitatively differs from the violence humans suffer. (5)

But it’s late and I’m tired, and a stack of student papers awaits me in the morning, so for now I will let sleeping lions lie.

British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, Folio 4r

But be aware that the lion sleeps with his eyes open. Perhaps we should as well.