Robert Hanks: Lions aren't just big pussy cats – they're dignified and dangerous

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News from the Daily Mail that Alexander Pylyshenko, owner of a small private zoo in Vasylivka, Ukraine, is to spend five weeks living in a cage with two lions.

"During the five weeks in the cage he will bond with Katya, an African lioness, and her male partner, Samson," the paper optimistically reports, though it adds a note of caution: "Katya is pregnant, which could make her fiercely overprotective." (I'm not sure what "overprotective" means in this context: how protective does a lioness need to get before a sensible man makes his excuses and leaves?)

Mr Pylyshenko's aim is, he says, to draw attention to the mistreatment of lions throughout the world and to raise funds for charity. The fact that he is being written about in the insular London press shows that he has the knack of drawing attention; how he goes about redirecting some of it to mistreated lions remains to be seen.

In climbing into the lions' den, he is following a tradition begun – involuntarily – by the prophet Daniel some time after 600BC. It was upheld by, among others, Harold Davidson, the defrocked rector of Stiffkey in Norfolk, who in the 1930s was reduced to making a living by preaching from a lion's cage in Skegness – an engagement that ended abruptly after he trod on a lioness's tail. (John Walsh told the story more fully in his novel Sunday at the Cross Bones.)

But in the past half-century or so, our attitude to lions has undergone a sea change. They have always been labelled "noble", but admiration for their supposed virtues has been tempered by suspicion and fear.

In his too little-known book Zoo, written in 1938, Louis MacNeice characterised the heavily barred cages of the Lion House at London Zoo as embodying an authentic impression of the big cat as enemy and victim. (You can glimpse what he is talking about in Carol Reed's film The Fallen Idol.) The lion as victim we can still grasp: any zoo, any television wildlife programme will tell you how terrifyingly endangered they are.

But we're in danger of forgetting that the lion can be a threat – a process aided by the unbarred but cramped Lion Terraces at London Zoo, which reduces them to overweight pussy cats. Lions are becoming cuddly: just look at the YouTube popularity of Anthony Bourke and John Rendall's heartwarming but atypical reunion with the lion they had raised as a pet then released into the wild. That shift is tragic, stripping the lion of a dignity it deserves: there's a reason why the collective noun is "pride". It could also be tragic in other ways: and let's hope Alexander Pylyshenko doesn't stumble across one of them in the next five weeks.

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