Many years ago, in a different lifetime, I decided I’d like to spend some time with lions…
Tasked with helping to raise funds for a new zoo enclosure I suggested sitting with them for a day to write about how they coped with ‘uncomfortable confinement’ in their tiny cage.
It was of course a fanciful notion. What could I learn (in my little purpose-built cage attached to theirs – it was clearly too perilous to be inside with them) in a few hours, compared to the lifetime these great kings of the jungle had spent in an enclosure scarcely big enough to stretch their powerful tawny limbs and pace up and down?
I think of that experiment now (my mad caper did make the TV news and indeed raised money for the lions’ enclosure) because I’m getting a small insight into how I imagine they felt.
From my living room I can see outside, but for weeks and months this year I’ve been told I shouldn’t go there. When I do venture out for my walk, I’ve walked past bars, shops and restaurants closed to me too. Places where I once roamed free but are now strictly out of bounds.
Is this how the great zoo cats felt, I wondered, staring with their amber eyes through the bars that imprisoned them in a cage – not of their choosing – which must at times have seemed so flimsy they dreamed of crushing it with one of their iron paws to escape?
But – and this is where I get truly fanciful – would things have been any better for them if they did? And what choice would they make if they could?
Inside their enclosures, like well-fed prisoners, they received their daily meal without having to hunt; sprawled, less like Kings of the Savannah, but of a tiny concrete-floored castle.
They may have been bored, but they were safe. In the wild they often fall victim to poachers as their habitat disappears and men make cattle farms that tempt the world’s most effective predator into often fatal trespassing.
Then there are the internecine wars with other lions, often younger males, who come to steal their wives and their territory. A defeated male can have a long, slow and lonely death brought about by infected wounds or starvation.
If a lion could choose, I wonder, would he opt for a life of bounding and hunting out in the wilderness with all its implicit dangers, or choose the safety of his sanitised enclosure, much larger than those old cages, and with daily room service. (At least he can watch his potential prey march past, rather in the way we’ve been forced to turn to online shopping.)
In our human world, as even more successful predators, it is we for centuries who have always made the rules. But now that has changed. The virus is in charge and to defeat it it is we who must retreat, locked into prisons of our own making. Our own homes.
Of course, we can go out. But it struck me that the analogy with my beloved lions was a good one. If we could wander, as we used to, endangering only ourselves (not others – therein lies the problem), what would we choose to do?
Amongst my friends the jury would be out. One or two would choose to sit in a cardboard box if it meant they would never fall ill; others would leap into the great unknown with a kind of ‘get me if you dare’ bravado challenge to Covid, having decided that it was worth the risk of being clobbered by a very nasty illness rather than living out their days as a caged monkey (we’re primates, remember).
Of course, lions have not always been kept solely in zoos. In the old days some of them had a worse fate – in circuses (and yes, I’ve been a ‘guest’ lion tamer too!) where they were forced to perform humiliating tricks for applause. It’s hard to get even your domestic cat to do that.
What hoops would we jump through, I wondered, if it meant we could leap the queue and be rewarded with an early Covid vaccine. It’d be like some warped coronavirus Olympics.
Or perhaps we could revisit an even earlier match between humans and lions, a replica of Rome’s vast and bloody Colisseum. Those who survived would get the vaccine. Those who didn’t…well, it’d be a quick and hopefully merciful death.
This is all madness of course. But I reckon there’d be some people desperate – and stupid enough – to volunteer.
Fortunately we’re not entirely responsible for our own fate, because they’re inextricably entangled with the fate of others. We have the added blessing of understanding we have a social responsibility. The lions, leaping on their prey in the wilderness, were never cursed with that.