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.