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Couscous and Miss PoPsicle

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Couscous and Miss PoPsicle

From Earth in Transition
March 2013

And what she didn't understand is that we humans will never be "loved" by top predators. They're not in the business of loving us. Jokes about our cats at home treating us like servants are not far off the mark. Every evening, in our little game of teeth and claws, Miss PoPsicle reminds me that her version of love is basically, "I love you so much I could eat you."

lion maimed Cat Haven couscous popsicle

Why did Couscous, a male lion at the zoo/sanctuary Cat Haven in California, attack and kill young intern Dianna Hanson? Why did he not just reciprocate what she described as her "love of animals"?

I don't mean to sound flip about this horrible incident, but my "play time" with Miss PoPsicle at home every evening tells me exactly why:

First, Miss P rolls over onto her back and invites me to tickle her tummy. As soon as I comply, she grabs my fingers with her front claws and then gets her back claws in on the act for a better grip. Two seconds later, she has four big incisor teeth clamped onto my hand.

I know better than to try to pull away, which would only lead to a trail of blood and a badly scratched hand. Miss P is just play-biting, but the fact is her idea of "fun" is always to do with killing, even if it's just pretend-killing. A few seconds later, happily, she disengages and I'm free, at least for the next 24 hours, from the grip of one of nature's great predators.

Scale Miss P up a few times, and you have Couscous, the lion who decided to "play" with young Dianna Hanson, and who now, like her, lies dead – shot down by police as they tried to recover the dead body of the girl from his teeth and claws.

Lions are top predators. They kill. It's what they do. It's their nature. Top predators hold the ecosystem together. They keep it in balance. For most of our history, we humans, a typical prey species on the plains of Africa, were part of what these top predators kept in balance. But today we're hopelessly out of balance – a prey species with guns and ammo, desperately insecure in our attempt to play the role of this planet's top predator, a role for which we were never psychologically equipped.

And as a now-well-armed prey species, our whole relationship with large animals, especially the true top predators, is especially ambivalent. Highly conscious of our own mortality, we seek relief by proving to ourselves that we can dominate them. So we hunt them down and turn them into rugs, or we capture them and have them jump through flaming hoops at circuses and do tricks at SeaWorld.

Or we try to get them to “love” us. That’s what young Dianna Hanson was probably trying to do. She’d told her friends how much she "loved" big cats. What she probably meant was that she wanted to be loved BY them. And what she didn't understand is that we humans will never be "loved" by top predators. They're not in the business of loving us. Jokes about our cats at home treating us like servants are not far off the mark. Every evening, in our little game of teeth and claws, Miss PoPsicle reminds me that her version of love is basically, "I love you so much I could eat you."

People who truly care about our fellow animals are never in the business of putting them behind bars. Real people don't need to fight their own insecurities by dominating other animals – or, sadly in this case, by trying to be loved by them.

The only way to love lions is to leave them alone and be in awe of their true nature as the king of beasts.