But what was it like for the lion?: Colin Tudge corrects popular myths about predators after the London Zoo mauling

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The Independent Online
ON THE face of it, the response of Arfur the Asian lion to Ben Silcock's intrusion to his enclosure at London Zoo on New Year's Eve was simple: the potential prey presented himself, and the savage predator, designed to kill, struck out at him. A Rottweiler guarding a building site, or a machine built specifically to destroy, would react in the same way.

Some said, 'Well, that's the way lions are.' Others, such as animal psychologist Roger Mugford, commented on television that mega-predators should not be kept in the middle of a city. Jan Morris opined in the Independent that the incident showed the folly of keeping wild animals at all. Beneath these responses, which seem commonsensical, lie misconceptions which are dangerous both to people and animals.

We might try to look at the incident from Arfur's point of view, as interpreted by London Zoo's carnivore specialist Doug Richardson. It is wrong, for a start, to assume that because lions are carnivores, they are particularly aggressive. Predators have no monopoly on aggression, as any zebra stallion would cheerfully demonstrate. For predators, aggression is simply a mode which they enter once it is obvious that a fight is necessary or unavoidable. Neither are lions especially brave. To survive in the wild, lions must be prepared to take on animals bigger than, say, rabbits, or they would starve; but they do not hurl themselves at elephants or rhinos, buffalo or gaur, or - in Asia - at bears and tigers. They survive best who can judge most finely when to back down.

In this, wild predators differ absolutely from badly trained guard dogs, which have been bred not to discriminate. As the Duke of Orleans observed in Shakespeare's Henry V, English fighting dogs 'run unwinking into the mouth of a Russian bear', and 'have their heads crushed like rotten apples'. Wild animals which behaved like that would soon disappear.

Above all, wild animals of all kinds are easily confused by novelty. They must assume that an unprecedented circumstance is potentially lethal; nothing can be taken for granted. For Arfur the lion on New Year's Eve, Ben Silcock presented several kinds of novelty, some of which Arfur had to assume were threatening.

Silcock entered the lions' enclosure, then containing Arfur, the male, and two females, and distributed small frozen turkeys. As Richardson says, Arfur had been fed by hand before, but only by the keepers whom he knows well, and only from the other side of the wire. Here was a stranger with no intervening wire: a double confusion.

Then again, lions have a special attitude to human beings. Every human knows that he or she is no match for a lion, but lions do not know that until they put it to the test. In the wild, modern African lions give most human beings a wide berth. To a large extent, they judge the size of the opposition by height; and a man looks down at a lion. All in all, says Richardson, Arfur's response to Silcock would not be aggression; it would be: 'What the hell is going on?'

Arfur accepted the turkey, and the incident might have ended there if Silcock had turned and walked away. Instead, intent on establishing a relationship, he extended a hand. That gesture was again confusing for Arfur, and could be interpreted as a potential threat. He was obliged to respond for his own safety, and, as the resident male, to guard the pride's territory. So he hit out; and for the first time in his adult life, there was no wire between him and the person he construed as a potential attacker. The rest is obvious.

To confuse such behaviour - essentially a restrained and nervous response to a perceived threat - with the attack of a guard dog is unfortunate. First, because we misconstrue the nature of wild predators (we assume they are indiscriminate killers when they are not), we persecute them worldwide. Almost all large predators, and many small ones, are now endangered. Second, and with truly sublime foolishness, we allow often rather inadequate people to take fierce dogs into public places, even though these animals are far more dangerous than their wild counterparts, precisely because they are bred to be indiscriminate, and because they have no specific fear of human beings.

London's lions are Asian. In historical times, Asian lions ranged from Greece to Bangladesh - as witnessed by Aesop, David the shepherd boy, the Roman circus, Assyrian bas-relief and Chinese porcelain. Now only a few hundred (284 at the last count) remain, in the Gir Forest of north-west India.

There is no room for that populatian to expand; lions and cattle-herders already clash far too often. But unless the population expands, it is almost bound to die out. So Asian lions (plus the five remaining sub-species of tiger, several sub-species of leopard, and some other large predators) must, for the time being, be bred in zoos to avoid extinction. London's four Asians are the founding animals of a new Asian population in Britain, which soon will be distributed among several leading zoos.

This whole affair is infinitely sad, and yet it has had two mollifying consequences. It has at last obliged the Government to recognise the current plight of psychologically disturbed people in Britain. And, pleasingly, no one has blamed the lion, and only a few very foolish people have blamed London Zoo. The simple truth is that unless we keep such animals in zoos - including, or even particularly, the big predators - then we will lose them.

The author's latest book, 'Last Animals at the Zoo' (OUP), is now available in paperback. The story of London Zoo's recent problems, and its recovery, begins on BBC2 this Thursday.

(Photograph omitted)