Walking with lions: Learning My ABDDDs

By Amelia Grieve-Putland

A lot of things frighten me. Spiders, aeroplanes, big waves, public speaking … the list goes on. But for some reason—maybe two months in the African heat was finally taking its toll—this time I wasn’t scared.

The place: Victoria Falls, Lion Conservation Park, Zimbabwe. The date: November 2011. The temperature: 50 degrees Celsius and climbing. Yet I was in heaven.

Almost on a whim I had decided I wanted to go and live with lions in Africa. My friends thought I was weird and my brother simply said ‘no’, but six months later I was there. After two months volunteering with children in Zambia, where I was already having the time of my life, I arrived in Zimbabwe and nothing could compare to what was coming next.

I had signed up for a lion conservation project, the goal of which was to combat the devastating decline in lion population. We attempted this through rehabilitation and breeding, with eventual release into the wild. The project predominantly employs local residents and receives financial backing from the impressively transparent Cape Town-based NGO, African Impact. Reliant on donations, tourists and volunteers, its overhead is minimal and its staff are the most generous, welcoming people I have ever encountered (along with everyone else I met in Africa). I was working at Stage One, where cubs born in captivity are familiarised with humans so their handlers become the ‘dominant’ pride members. Cubs are taken on walks every day to improve their hunting and tracking skills until they reach 18-24 months of age when (depending on temperament) they become too dangerous. At this point they progress to subsequent stages where human contact is removed, prides are formed and new cubs are born.

I want to stress that, while they are accustomed to humans, these lions are by no means tame and, although technically cubs, their backs reached up to my waist. This is why every volunteer undertakes two lion training sessions before making contact. The sessions teach the ABDDDs – the 5 principles of lion interaction.

The A stands for Affection, which I found easy because, let’s face it, lions are pretty freaking cute.

B is for a healthy Balance of affection and discipline. We were told a cautionary tale about a repeat volunteer who was a bit too affectionate and was suspended from the project after lying down next to a lion and trying to give him a cuddle (she insisted they shared a special bond).

The first D is Dominance. It is incredibly important to establish dominance early on to avoid being seen as prey. To do this one must stand as tall as possible (somewhat ineffective for me as I narrowly met the five foot height requirement), approach with confidence and, most importantly, do not hesitate. Apparently past volunteers who had failed to assert dominance were consequently stalked by the cubs for the rest of their stay.

The second D, Discipline, does not involve hurting or punishing the animals in any way. The discipline exercised is akin to that of puppy pre-school where the use of a stern, deep voice and the occasional treat for good behaviour is sufficient. It also helps to point a stick at a naughty lion when trying out your James Earl Jones impersonation with a booming ‘NO!’, as this apparently makes your arm seem longer and you more dominant.

The final D is the art of Distraction which proved particularly useful. The cubs are most dangerous when feeling playful – one ‘play-bite’ and you’re an extremity down. You use the sticks to rustle leaves and shift their attention from the volunteer they have in their sights – luckily, while playful, cubs are easily distracted.

These sessions interesting but I was eager to complete the training and get to the fun part. When I was finally allowed to make contact, I was surprised at how soft their fur was. I expected coarse, wiry strands toughened by daily frolicking in the savannah but instead it felt just like a child’s soft toy. However, as I withdrew my hand and noticed the thick black grime now coating my palm, I abandoned my initial comparisons with teddy bears. While much of my work involved enclosure cleaning (fondly referred to as ‘shit shovelling’), meat preparation (not for the weak-stomached), path clearing (hacking at foliage with a rusty machete) and insect research (where I caught more bugs in my hair than in my net), my time with the lions made it all worthwhile.

I know you’re not meant to play favourites with kids, but Chisa was definitely mine. Chisa, meaning ‘hot’ in local language Ndebele, was named for his hot-headed nature. He was the biggest, strongest and most challenging to get to know, but that’s what appealed to me. He was often moody and impetuous, which made it all the more rewarding when your pat made him stop mid-stride and collapse in a heap. When he was good with you, you really felt like you’d earned it. However, it was far too easy to let moments of bonding lull you into a false sense of security. I knew Chisa was a wild animal capable of inflicting serious damage, but this slipped to the back of my mind when I took him for walks or dangled twigs in front of him to play with like a housecat plays with a piece of string. It therefore came as a huge shock when I witnessed Chisa and his sister Chobe kill and devour a pregnant, injured buffalo. It was a sobering experience to say the least. Of course I knew it was a critical milestone in their development and part of the greater ‘circle of life’, but I am ashamed to say I found it hard to watch. The buffalo’s painful cries for help were awful; they seemed to go on forever and I can still hear that final ‘crack’ of its skull. That was the day everyone stopped referring to Chisa and Chobe as cubs. After that, Chisa had a taste for blood and became too dangerous and unpredictable for us to get close to. It occurred to me how naïve I had been and I developed a new respect for the ABDDDs.

Perhaps this is not everyone’s idea of heaven, but it was for me. I didn’t come away from this experience deluding myself that I had some ‘special connection’ with the lions. I know they are wild with no capacity to distinguish me from their next meal. However, it’s nice to think that maybe Chisa would recognise my scent or the sound of my voice (although I’m certainly not counting on it). And if you can’t relate to this, it might help if you met Richard Parker—do yourself a favour and go see Life of Pi.

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