“The Last Lions” – Thoughts & Advocacy

We just saw a special screening of The Last Lions. It opens on March 5th in Bay Area theaters, and February 18th in some other locations. It’s riveting!

The film-makers were able to follow and become familiar with lions as individuals, and as distinct personalities. More of this approach is needed if we are ever really to appreciate the rich and fascinating lives that wild animals have. Each individual animal has its own very personal story. Discovering some of these individual stories will help open up our own interest and understanding of them. This is what I, too, am attempting, with my own look at coyotes.

In telling this particular lion’s story, the film-makers reveal the lion’s depth of awareness, deep emotions and finely-tuned intelligence. Real animal intelligence is revealed in their daily lives and in their own environments — not as Time magazine might have you believe, in laboratories or in artificial human settings where we teach animals to mimic our own intelligence (“What Animals Think”, Time, August 16, 2010, pp. 36-43). What these scientists test is how many symbols an animal can learn and manipulate — and many animals are able to learn our system and manipulate a great quantity of symbols in complicated ways, revealing very complicated thought processes; but such tests reveal more about humans and our own limited human standards for understanding intelligence — as if language and symbols were the highest method by which animals might think or communicate. An animal’s true intelligence is going to be revealed in his own environment and in his own social system and with his own language; maybe we need to learn theirs.

We need more Jane Goodalls, who can help us figure out the depth these animals have, within their own environments and within their own social systems — interfering as little as possible so as to reveal them. This movie does just that.

The movie’s drama unfolds as, due to land scarcity caused by human encroachment — there are almost 8 billion humans in the world — a pride of lions takes over another’s territory.  The movie’s development reveals much about depth of awareness, wisdom and intelligence of wild animals — a “sapience” few of us really appreciate to the extent we should, and few of us want to attribute at all to animals. For instance, animals have their own vast communication systems. They can minutely “read” other animals’ individual and group behavior, body language, vocalizations, emotion displays and gazes, and the ability to understand a situation and plan ahead for their own and their family’s survival. There is much going on far beyond what meets the human eye. There is a lot of fascinating drama out there in the animal world!

In the movie, you’ll see mutual affection and care between lion mates, and between a lion and her cubs — in particularly wrenching scenes the lioness searches and calls out for those she loves. In stunning and beautiful footage you will see rivalry, hostility, and the ability to form alliances. You will see leadership quality and the ability of others in a pride to “read” this quality and rally and work together when the time arrives to do so.

The talk afterwards by the film-makers, Beverly & Dereck Joubert, was as fascinating as the movie  — and just as relevant to a coyote’s situation. Most importantly, they talked about the human tendency in Africa for “retribution-by-killing” whenever a cow is taken from a farmer by a lion. The same occurs with coyotes here, for instance when a farmer loses a goat to coyote, or when a cat disappears and is never found. This is when the call for culling coyotes begins anew, even though it is a policy which we’ve discovered in fact upsets a stable population and increases their numbers. Other solutions exist.

The big difference between lions and coyotes is that coyotes are not endangered. But humans have encroached on all territories so that both species are pressed for space. Each has its own way of coping. Coyotes are finding that, if they want to survive, they need to move into the same environments that we occupy — coyotes are coming into urban and suburban areas. Not all humans are happy with this. Because of fear and hate, often due to lack of knowledge, harmful rumors take hold which many humans are quick to believe and spread — upping the ante in human/animal confrontations each time, rather than verifying the facts.

Many of us look at wild animals — in real life or in pictures. But few of us have the patience or opportunity to stop and really observe what is actually going on. And here is the clincher for me: as I watched this movie, I could see that the fascinating full capacity for life which applies to individual lions is the same as what applies to our individual coyotes’ lives. We need to give these animals credit for these qualities — not something most of us are willing to do or even think too much about.  Maybe doing so could help overcome the biggest danger to both of them: human fear and hate.

Please donate to the cause for which the movie was made: preservation of our vanishing lions whose population has fallen in just fifty short years from 450,000 to 20,000. Contact National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative, at www.causeanuproar.org.

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