Are Lions Cruel?

We claim that the lions are cruel when they take down a buffalo calf. We see this very clearly on a YouTube video that has been seen by more than 67 million people: Battle at Kruger. What it shows is a pride of 5 lions taking out a small calf. The herd of several hundred buffalo runs away and the lions begin the slow process of killing the calf. A crocodile also tries to kill the calf. All the while, the calf is calling for help. The sound a calf makes in distress is rendered as waaaaa and is very similar to the crying of a human baby. The herd hears her distress calls and stops. And then to everyone’s surprise and delight, the entire herd turns around, and heads back toward the struggling calf. Among the most gregarious animals in Africa, they obviously care deeply about their calves. The buffalo surround the pride and slowly approach the young calf. The lions snarl menacingly. The herd is not intimidated. They clearly mean business. Suddenly one of the big males (they can weigh up to 2000 pounds) charges one of the lions, gets him on his horns, and tosses him in the air. Emboldened the others rout the lions and rescue the little guy who appears none the worse for the mauling.
We humans cheer. But consider what the lions are doing: they are simply sitting down to a meal. We interpret this as cruel. But if we were to take the same calf and put him into our system of slaughterhouses, the fate would be no less cruel, and the little calf would wind up dead. Veal calves, no less “cute” than this calf, are slaughtered after several months of basic torture.

What would a dialogue between us and the buffalo sound like? Indulge my fancy for a moment:

Human: “Wow! That was some battle!”
Cape Buffalo: “What’s a battle?”
Human: “You know, when two sides get into a fight, like a war.”
Cape Buffalo: “WTF?”
Human: “Anyway, were you ever lucky! You got your calf back!”
Cape Buffalo: “It wasn’t luck, we plucked up our courage and went after those lions.”
Human: “Yeah, pretty cruel beasts, lions.”
Cape Buffalo: “What does ‘cruel’ mean?”
Human: “You know, torturing that poor calf.”
Cape Buffalo: “I am not trying to be difficult, but I really don’t know that word, either. Torture? The lions were just trying to have our calf for lunch.”
Human: “Well, you are enemies, right?”
Cape Buffalo: “Another word I don’t know. Enemies?”
Human: “I mean you hate lions, don’t you?”
Cape Buffalo: “Hate? I am really having trouble understanding you today.”
Human: “Well those lions were trying to eat your calf.”
Cape Buffalo: “Yeah, and we stopped them. All the other words you use, enemies, hatred, cruelty, battles, I am sorry, I just don’t recognize them. I guess we’re just different than you.”
Human: “Guess so.”

I am pretty confident in thinking that lions do not intend suffering when they take down their prey. It is survival. They are designed in such a way that they must be predators to live. Predators require prey. But humans are a different type of predator, one with a conscience. We know we have such because from earliest times, there have been people who chose not to eat meat. It is inconceivable that a lion would choose not to eat meat. Have there always been humans who chose not to eat meat? It is hard to know; we have no records from earliest times, pre-agriculture, for example. My best guess though is that there were no people 40,000 years ago who opted for a vegetarian diet.

About jeffreymasson

My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury or the eBook
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5 Responses to Are Lions Cruel?

  1. Patty Bowers says:

    Lions r not cruel. Everyone and every animal needs to EAT. They r hard wired to hunt to fill their bellies. It’s just that simple. I doubt that any of othe animals r making judgement calls. They r simple responding to the FEAR instinct and to protect their young. But lions need meat, they r not grass eaters. I think all the animals involved in this story r not thinking “cruelty”, they r simply reacting to their hard wired instincts. Thank you.

  2. Dear Dr. Masson, what a pleasure to find you again, at last. I read one of your books very early in my intellectual development and it taught me many useful things. I live with many cats, and have had an opportunity to observe predatory behaviour at close hand. I wonder if animals have the time-sense that allows them a sense of suffering, as in, the ability to predict future pain and suffering which seems to add a layer of psychological pain to the experience of humans? I know that they have memory and facial recognition, but I haven’t been keeping up with my reading on the brain of late. In the event, thank you for another thought-provoking article, and I hope you find New Zealand’s delightful beaches salutary.

    • I don’t believe any of the big cats, who are obligate carnivores (that is, they have no choice but to eat other animals), think about, or even recognize, cruelty in what they do “for a living” as it were, any more than humans who sit down to a meat dinner give much thought to the animal killed for their pleasure. The difference is that the human CAN be made to think about this, and can change. I don’t think the big cats (or even our little domesticated cat friends) can. But I cannot swear to this. Maybe they know and don’t care? Awful thought!

  3. Jeffrey, I am delighted that you are still writing. I look forward to reading your latest book. My friend, Randy Eady, is hoping to meet you one of these days. He got your book about elephants, and found it very interesting. I believe he may have e-mailed you about it. If I may go back to the human brain, he is doing his dissertation on the Pineal gland. He was for quite impressed with your book, “Against Therapy,” and the chapter you had about the John Rosen Case and the compliment you paid me for my work on it. I loved that last line about our client finding me: “And that was the beginning of the end for John Rosen.” You may not have learned of how he tried to get a license to counsel elderly people in Boca Raton, but I was able to cut him off at the pass on that also. Wish we were not so far apart so we could discuss the research Randy and I are doing now. Warm regards. PS. You look great!

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