The Big Cats by Way of the Little Cats at Home

I am trying to come to terms with “violence” in different species, other than humans. The big cats obviously come to mind. Nobody would deny that we kill them in enormous numbers, and they kill us hardly at all. But there is some dispute as to how much killer instinct they actually have, and toward whom it is directed. So I am just putting down some of my preliminary thoughts here, and would welcome any views or more information. It is a fascinating topic, especially for those of us who live with cats. Cats definitely seem to me closer to their wild counterpart than dogs to wolves for example. I never ever feel threatened by Benjy, my yellow lab. But my cats sometimes give me a peculiar look, and I know better than to try to force them to do something they would rather not. No leashes for them. No raised voice. No commands. Not even “no.” Cats are definitely different. I love them to pieces, but they seem to expect and demand a certain distance that Benjy and others of his kind do not. Love, for sure, but at the time and place of their choosing, not necessarily ours. That is why I always feel so privileged when one of my four cats decides to spend the night next to me in bed. Benjy doing so I take for granted.

In his book, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, John Vaillant tells how in 1997, deep in the remote Russian backcountry, a poacher wounded a gigantic Amur or Siberian tiger. The tiger discovered the man’s cabin, and dragged a mattress out of his shack so he could lie comfortably in wait until the woodsman returned home. A few days later, the woodsman’s horrified friends discovered remains “so small and so few they could have fit in a shirt pocket.”

Vaillant notes, “In general, animals (including tigers) avoid conflicts whenever possible because fighting hurts, and the margins in the wild are simply too tight. Most predators — leopards or solitary wolves, for example — will abandon a contested kill rather than risk an injury. But tigers are different when dealing with its subjects, the male Amur tiger can be vicious, shrewd and vindictive…Based on the observations of hunters and biologists, it appears that Amur tigers will occasionally kill bears solely on something that we might recognize as principle.”

This is fascinating, as I have never seen anyone state that one animal kills another just on principle. Mind you, Vaillant is only speculating. But I have never known any other animal (except humans) to kill just on principle, i.e., because the other belongs to an enemy species. The whole idea of an “enemy” is a human construct. And so is the idea of vicious behavior. What would constitute “vicious” for a tiger? We don’t think of animals, even tigers, as capable of revenge, but in this case at least, the tiger really wanted to hunt down the man who tried to kill him. How human. This is highly unusual and risky behavior. On the other hand, the Amur tigers can weigh up to 800 pounds. There isn’t much they are afraid of.

But while tigers kill humans, we would not normally say they “prey” on them. In the Sundarbans of Bangladesh, 100 to 150 people are killed every year by tigers. Why would tigers kill humans more regularly than do lions and leopards in Africa, or pumas in North America? It seems to have something to do with tradition. Culture, if you like: tigers see other tigers kill and eat humans and they imitate them. But the comment by Jim Corbett, who was once a lion and tiger hunter, still stands many years later: “A man-eating tiger is a tiger that has been compelled through stress of circumstances beyond its control, to adopt a diet that is alien to it. The stress of circumstances, in nine cases out of ten wounds and in the tenth, old age.” Man-eating tigers almost always carry old wounds. These wounds are often the result of being shot by hunters. Isn’t it logical to think the tigers knew they had human enemies, and fought back? Tigers killing humans is more or less unknown in Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and Sumatra. In most places on the Indian subcontinent, tigers do not kill humans.

While we may never entirely understand the reason for the high number of humans killed in the Sundarbans, a successful and remarkably inventive method has been discovered to end the killings: Since it is known that tigers attack from behind, not face-to-face, in 1987 the area’s eight thousand honey collectors were outfitted with rubber face masks to wear on the back of the head. In that year not one person wearing the masks was killed, but twenty-nine people who temporarily removed the masks were. In other words, they are merely opportunists. Emotions, especially those we associate with our species (hatred, rage, revenge) just do not enter into the picture.

The African Leopard: Ecology and Behavior of a Solitary Felid by Theodore N. Bailey ) is considered the most thorough study of African Leopards ever done. Bailey writes: “Fighting among leopards was rare…Actual fighting among highly specialized carnivores is not advantageous to their physical well being and survival.” He says that while fighting is uncommon it has been observed from time to time: “Fights are usually of brief duration and fights seldom result in the death of either of the combatants. Apparently most fights between males occur when one male is attempting to establish himself in an area already occupied by a resident male.” Leopards have been reported to kill children in India. Is this hunger? Nobody is sure. I have not heard of any recent case of an African leopard killing a human.

Even lions, with their formidable equipment, avoid situations with buffalo where they feel they could get hurt. There is no such thing as fighting because of hatred. Lions only fight for something concrete: the right to mate, to eat, territory, never just out of anger or pointlessly. Females are more social than males precisely so they can guard against attack on their young (rarely on them, except insofar as they try to protect their young): “Experiments have shown that female lions roaring in unison are able to intimidate potential male interlopers passing through their territory and to minimize the risks of attacks on their offspring.” Humans are obviously not the natural prey of lions, but when lions are hungry we are vulnerable, and often lions are hungry because we have destroyed their natural prey. There was a case in April 2000 where a six-year-old boy was torn out of his father’s arms and devoured by five caged circus lions in Recife, Brazil. They just saw the boy as a vulnerable small animal. Hatred for man? Hardly. They do kill humans though, and in fairly large numbers, and usually after a drought. From 1990 to 2004, lions in Tanzania (home of the largest lion population in Africa) killed 563 people!

How often do lions kill other lions, and when they do, is it deliberate or accidental? The most elaborate study of lions remains George Schaller’s The Serengeti Lion.  He describes six lions killed by other lions, and he mentions two others authors who also tells of further instances of lions killing each other. So it does happen, but it seems to be fairly rare. It would be good to have statistics on this, which we don’t have. A weird thing about lions is that sometimes the male will chase away females to make certain that cubs eat; at other times the cubs can actually starve as the adults prevent them from eating after a kill. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mammals, puts it this way: “There is no guarantee that the cubs will get to eat after a kill and it is not uncommon for cubs to starve.” But the editor also points out: “These Man-eaters of Tsavo were themselves the victims of human activity, for just a few years earlier Europeans had inadvertently imported a cattle virus that decimated wild ungulates as well as livestock, leaving little for the lions to eat.”

Schaller writes about mortality in sudabults and adults:: “Of 23 male and female lions 2 years old and older, resident in the Masai and Seronera prides in June, 1966, one male was killed in a fight, another male probably died of wounds incurred in a fight, one female died of old age, a second one, also old, was last seen in poor condition and unquestionably died, and a third female suddenly disappeared with one of her two cubs and possibly was killed by other lions. At the end of 1969 eighteen of the original members were left.” In other words, 5.5% per year. What I find interesting here is he did not see a single instance of a female killed by a male. As for males killing, I think that lions are so well endowed with weapons in their claws, that even if they do not intend to kill, a wound can end up killing. May we speak of bad tempers with cats?  I often see it in my house cats for no apparent reason.

I am beginning to think that the problem with lions and other big cats is that they are equipped by nature with such lethal tools for one purpose that it is almost impossible not to use them for others. It is like giving a human a machine gun. It goes to their head.

Pumas (the term preferred by scientists, but also called cougars in the Eastern United States, and mountain lions in California), is the same as the panther or leopard in the Old Word. They are known to be very shy and while females stay with their mothers, males are pretty much solitary. And very aggressive: I was told by one of America’s leading authorities, that up to half of cougar deaths can be attributed to attacks by other cougars, almost always males (but I wonder if this applied only to one area or is a general truth). They travel alone, almost never in pairs, and certainly never in packs. The reason for this is that their nutritional needs are so high – it has been estimated that a male cougar needs a home range of between thirty-six and four hundred square miles. Ken Logan, one of America’s leading puma field biologists did not see any evidence of fighting between females (what is it with males and men?). All of the aggression was from the side of the males, killing one another over territory, breeding females, or food caches. The question of “intent” in animals is always tricky: did one cougar “intend” to kill another with whom he is fighting, or did he merely wish to make the other go away? Sometimes, for reasons I cannot understand, males killed females and cannibalized their young. Still, Ken Logan says that trophy hunting is by far the single greatest mortality factor for lions through the West (where they live exclusively, except for about 100 still living in Florida).

Do they kill humans? Yes, but rarely. Between 1890 and 1989, in the United States and Canada, records show a total of thirty-six attacks, eleven of which resulted in human deaths. Of the fifteen cats who were later killed, a full 80 percent were sick or underweight.

Rick Hopkins, a cougar biologist who has studied the cats in the Diablo Mountains of Northern California, says the risk of a lion attack is one in twenty-five million. Yet the poet Gary Snyder has written, “The wild is perhaps the very possibility of being eaten by a mountain lion.” In the authoritative book on wildcats by Mel and Fiona Sunquist, they write: “like cheetahs pumas are gentle, retiring cats, more eager to flee than fight, and both species rarely confront humans.”

I have been talking about the big cats. But I have lived most of my 70 years with little cats, the ones who live with us in our homes, and I would like to say a word about them here.

Cats of course tolerate us to an unusual degree for a wild animal. Because cats remain, to some extent wild, not entirely domesticated, we can safely say that their behavior is almost identical to that of their wild cousins, the big cats. Not only do they tolerate us, they often seem to like us to an inordinate degree. I need only point you to the incredible story of Christian the Lion, and the phenomenal popularity of the video where in his incarnation as a wild lion once again, he meets up with his two previous human companions. That said, when I watched the video I had my heart in my mouth. Here is why: almost all cats I know will only tolerate you rubbing their tummy to a limited degree. If you go too far, or even if they have just had enough, or if their instincts are aroused, you may well find that your hand is now a prisoner: four paws, with claws out, are holding it. You may try to withdraw it only to find that the more you do so, the deeper in the claws go. You look at your cat with incredulity: “See here, Megala, it’s me, you idiot!” Megala gives you one of those looks you hope you never get from your spouse: “Like I care. Pal.  You transgresse; now you pay.” OK, not all cats do this all the time, but all cats do it once in a while. I have never known a cat who does not, and I have lived with dozens and dozens of cats in my cat-besotted life. What are they doing? Just being felids. You have awakened a hunting maneuver in a carnivore.

Now Megala is only 5 pounds. The average size of a male lion is 400 pounds. If Megala jumped up on me with his claws out, I would be alarmed. If he weighed 400 pounds I could be dead. But I don’t think Megala intends to harm me. In fact, I am sure he does not. Like other cats, after I speak to him soothingly, and remind him who I am and where he is (in a house, not in the jungle), he slowly even if somewhat reluctantly, relinquishes his hold on me and lets me go, to live another day.

I give Megala and the other three cats I live with, a lot of respect, and a lot of room. They are still carnivores, and quite different, really totally different, than Benjy, my yellow Labrador retriever about whom I have written a book with the self-explanatory title The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving. Push Megala a bit, and he can easily stop loving you, at least for the moment. So I was very impressed to see Christian the Lion lunge at his former friends, Ace Bourke, and John Rendall with pure joy in his heart a full year after he had not seen them. So were over twenty million other viewers! Not only that, but evidently Christian who had, after all, been a tame lion once in his life, was able to convince his female companion, who was not tame at all, to indulge his human friends as well. All in all, it remains the single most astonishing video I have ever viewed! Google it and watch.  You will agree with me I think.

So when you are dealing with an animal as formidably armed by nature as any of the great cats, especially the three biggest, lions, tigers and leopards, one of the key notions for me remains involuntary manslaughter. They may not mean to kill you, but they do. They lack intent. You are just in the way. Moreover, I would suggest this is true of violence toward others of their species as well: lions just want to drive other lions away; they are not interested in murder per se.

E.R. Ewer, the leading scholar of the carnivores, in her authoritative book with that title,  has written what I believe is the definitive comment:

“Possibly the most striking feature of carnivore social organization is the rarity with which serious fighting appears to be required in ‘maintaining law and order.’…By and large, the signals of ownership are respected: a transient does not attempt to take over from an established owner and in return is given free passage.”

Schaller, too, had the impression that in a chase, the pursuer was taking good care not to catch up with his quarry – he was ‘seeing him off’ rather than trying to catch him. This is why lions roar: The point being to warn other males that someone is already there: “If every skirmish between male lions were to escalate into a raging battle the animals could suffer lethal wounds. By roaring instead males are able to signal their dominance and avoid incurring injuries.”

Jim Corbett in his book: The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, when he finally kills the animal who had been terrorizing the village, writes: “Here was only an old leopard, who differed from others of his kind in that his muzzle was grey and his lips lacked whiskers; the best-hated and the most feared animal in all India, whose only crime – not against the laws of nature, but against the laws of man – was that he had shed human blood with no object of terrorizing man, but only in order that he might live.”  Note, too, that he carried many bullet wounds suggesting that he good grievances against us (though that could be our thinking at work, and far from his mind).


About jeffreymasson

My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury or the eBook
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6 Responses to The Big Cats by Way of the Little Cats at Home

  1. Can someone, after watching the video of Christian, deny that nohuman animals have feelings?
    How much human lose for being so blind !!
    I’m sure, life would be different if humans would not have lost the way.
    “There are none so blind as those who do not want to see”
    Thank you so much for these treasures we receive from you Mr Masson.

  2. Feral Fairy says:

    I wondered why my tomcat Tails (a feral cat that we weren’t allowed to actually own because we were in a rental… didn’t stop us from letting him visit whenever he wanted) would turn on his back for a belly scratch then punish me for doing exactly that. I got good at observing the signals of irritation pretty quickly after my hands were slashed up a few times. I thought it was because he was feral, or male or because he really hated me (which didn’t make sense when he would curl up on my lap to go to sleep for a few hours, purring) or just a confusing feline… but no, it’s his hunting instincts. We moved and I miss my Tails, I’m comforted that the whole neighbourhood was feeding him and petting him : ) he’s a very charming cat.

  3. David says:

    I beg to differ on your statement “But I have never known any other animal (except humans) to kill just on principle, i.e., because the other belongs to an enemy species.” Lions and hyenas routinely go out of their way to attack each other. It has been well documented. Though I agree that it isn’t the norm for all animals.

    • Kay says:

      Lions do attack hyenas for a reason, territory, their staking their claim on their kill and their land, they generally don’t attack without reason.

  4. mujer salvaje says:

    Another incredible video about cats is “Kamouniak,the heart of a lion,Jeff you must comment that!I´ve showed it to my pupils,to show them the attatchment theory,but I ´d like to read your opinion about this amazing behavior!Best wishes,continue writing!

  5. Reflections says:

    A late entry from an ardent admirer. I recently posted an article on my blog @ that would seem to shed some light on the “violence” in different species. The article I am referring to is by Lee Dye and appeared on September 15, 2011. The title of his article is “Why Do We Love Our Pets?” and was written as a SPECIAL To abc NEWS. According to Dye and others, the amygdala found in the temporal lobe and recognized as the seat of emotional reaction plays a prominent role in fear conditioning. Since it is responsible for reacting to changes in the environment, would it not be reasonable to suggest it may be a factor, if not the sole factor, in the type and degree of violence found in differing species of animals and the individual animals within a species? Just a thought.
    On a separate note… I wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading, WHEN ELEPHANTS WEEP and DOGS NEVER LIE ABOUT LOVE. It goes without saying how I feel about all the magnificent creatures we call animals.

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