He was only about six feet away from me, the young lion. He appeared disinterested in us, to my relief, and his sister was even more so. She lay in the tall grass a little further away, with her back turned. “Who wants to go first?” Our guide asked. I froze. I wasn’t ready. What if he chewed my arm off? I wanted to keep my arm and all five quarts of blood in my body. A braver soul than I stepped up. She carefully walked behind the male lion, put her knee down behind him, and gently patted him on the back. Other than a slight turn of his head, the yearling cat didn’t seem to mind or notice really. Since I was closest, the guide suggested I go next. He guided me behind the lion and showed me how to position myself without disturbing him. I gingerly placed a hand on the lion’s back and felt its fur. It was stiff and a little coarse, a bit like the fur of a Doberman pinscher. I was instructed to pet him harder. A lion’s skin is sensitive and gentle pets can feel irritating to them. Going against intuition and my sense of self-preservation, I did as instructed. This seemed to please the animal. He seemed to relax more and closed his eyes. I was actually more nervous about the young female lying down behind me who I was told was less friendly than her brother. Sometimes I like to take a step back and look at what I’m doing out of context. What on Earth was I doing??? Why was I touching one lion and worrying about another behind me? I suppose I have a rather unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on how you look at it) habit of following my fear and dealing with the consequences later. This fear recently led me to travel to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe to not only say hello to the misty, thundering falls but to have the chance to get close and personal with young lions at the Lion Encounter.
The Lion Encounter is a conservation program whose aim is to reintroduce the offspring of captive lions into the wild with a four-step program. Eventually, the animals are released into an animal reserve where they will have no contact with humans. At the present stage, in which they go on walks with humans, they are introduced to their natural environment. They interact with other lions and learn about hunting and dominance, in addition to learning to be more comfortable in the bush.
When I asked why the lions walk with people, the guide admitted that they had tried soliciting for donations in the past with poor results. To fund their program, they charge tourists money to walk with young lions, and that has proven much more successful. It seemed a bit strange, but I have to admit that it makes sense. The employees of the program made it clear that money is necessary to train new employees, maintain infrastructure, and feed the lions until they are ready to hunt for themselves. The program only allows human contact up to 18 months of age, after which, they are cut off from humans inside the reserve and encouraged to hunt on their own.
After we all had the chance to pet the friendly male, the guide whistled and both lions stood up and started walking along a dirt path. We followed their lead. The cats occasionally stopped to look around, or lie on a comfortable patch of grass, and we started and stopped along with them. At one point, while I was walking close to them, both lions stopped. Their ears perked up, their muscles tensed, and they both stared in the same direction. Neither one moved for a couple of minutes. I didn’t want to move either. “What’s happening?” I asked. “Guinea fowl,” was the guide’s reply. This was, after all, how they learn about their natural prey and habitat. Maybe it was a bit morbid of me, but I was hoping to see them at least run after those goofy little birds. No such luck.
We walked along the dirt path for maybe another twenty minutes. Our guide chatted helpfully about the conservation program and about the individual lions we were with. Just as he was asking if anyone had any questions, I heard quiet, but rapidly approaching footsteps of a four-legged animal. I looked around, panicked. A third lion came crashing through the bush and tackled one of the lions we were walking with. Then a fourth appeared, and a fifth. They playfully jumped on, pawed at, and bit each other. They seemed to have missed their feline friends. I was pretty sure none of the lions were drugged, but this confirmed it for me. They were happy and healthy, and it seemed my money was well spent.
For anyone headed to the Victoria Falls area, especially if you have any interest in animals, I recommend seeking out the Lion Encounter. It’s a rare opportunity to learn more about these endangered animals, and get close to them in an ethical setting. I have found other places that sell time with lions from a very young age up to adulthood, however, those programs seem more about generating profit than anything. The Lion Encounter’s ultimate goal is to reintroduce these animals to the wild, which is why they don’t allow contact with people after 18 months of age. Why not try something mildly foolish and extreme? It’s for a great cause, and you’ll have a great story (and great pictures!) to remember for the rest of your life.