Nov 022011

I generally avoid nature documentaries—they tend to contain so much misinformation that they make me crazy—but the other night I was flipping channels, and I watched a few minutes of two different shows, both about lions, that really piqued my curiosity:

Lions are a true apex predator—one of the most powerful and successful creatures on the planet with few adversaries. So their lives are in many ways easier, safer, and more comfortable than most other animals.

In the first show, a lioness was raising her cubs in what turned out to be the territory of a cobra, and each of the cubs and the mother ended up being bitten.  Within a few agonizing minutes the cubs were all dead, but it took much longer for the mother, who was clearly in incredible pain and anguish as she lay next to her dead cubs, growing weaker and weaker, salivating and cramping and going blind before eventually a pack of hyenas showed up to terrorize her before she finally died…


In the second, a pride of lions (a 3 year old male, several females, and a bunch of cubs) was struggling to survive.  In a brief period they had battled drought, and a scarcity of food, and they were weak and hungry.  They finally managed to catch a buffalo which was great news for the lion pride, but was gruesome for the buffalo who was essentially pulled down by the weight of several lionesses and eaten alive…  But at least the lions were finally able to eat, although each of them had countless flies on her face making even the brief moment of satiation rather unpleasant.  Then, just as they were finishing their first meal in weeks, an unknown male lion showed up to fight with and defeat the resident male.  The resident male was injured, and limped off to die a slow agonizing death of starvation, while the new male spent the next hour or so killing all the cubs and playing with their lifeless bodies.

Each of these is, obviously, quite sad on an emotional level, but I was able to set aside my sentimental response and remember that this is how nature works: almost all wild animals will face hunger and injury and cold and parasites before dying an unpleasant death while they are still quite young.

What I could not answer, and still cannot, is how so many people can look at a lion in captivity—lounging on a comfortable bed, eating its fill of optimal food, free from flies and worms and fleas, drinking clean fresh water every day, running and playing without a worry in the world, living several times longer, raising babies in safety—and feel sorry for the captive animal.  Feel that the animal would be happier or better off living the “free” life of a wild animal.  Certainly, there are some captive animals that are abused or neglected and would be better off in any other situation, but you would have to look long and hard to find ANY animal in captivity that suffers more than its wild counterparts…