Some dogs are nuts about big cats.
In Africa, I felt privileged to know some of them – from Boxers to Jack Russels.
Incidentally, locals also developed the African Lion Dog breed, also called the Rhodesian Ridgeback, to hunt lions. Working in packs, the powerful canines keep a big cat at bay while waiting for their masters to shoot it.
However, it’s good to know that lion dogs have put their hunting days behind them and are now confined to guarding the hearth.
For their part, big cat menagerie owners still keep dogs. Captive lions and other exotics are often hand-raised with domestics, which is ideal because big cats become better socialized in the process and have more chances of turning out to be good-natured, calm adults.
Of course, some canines are better than others as surrogate moms. One of my white lionesses, Cleo, was traumatized because she was savaged by dogs as a cub. Hence, she became extremely dangerous to humans. Nevertheless, she seemed to be an exception.
Most of the over 20 big cats in the South African menagerie I volunteered in were raised with the owner’s five canines of varied breeds and sizes. It’s amazing how these assorted guard dogs and hunting dogs tolerate being used as a punching bag, chew toy, wet nurse, heat pad and cushion by their adopted wildlings.
Lady, the Boxer, has minded several generations of lions. Boxers are guard dogs with a reputation for being good with kids. I didn’t realize they’re just as good with lion and tiger cubs, as well as cheetahs and caracals.
When Lady curls up in her bed in the camp kitchen, Nola, the one-month lion cub, crawls in with her, tramps all over her prone body and often suckles on her dry teats till she dozes off. Lady stays motionless, careful not to disturb the little lioness.
When Nola wakes up and goes exploring, Lady solemnly trots after the cub to keep her out of mischief. She grooms the baby as a mother would and if Nola cries, Lady rushes over to comfort her at once.
Impy, the tiny Jack Russel terrier, grew up with lions and Sabu, the cheetah. In turn, he raised many lions and Levi, the caracal.
Jack Russels were bred to flush foxes from their burrows, so despite their diminutive size, they are hunting dogs with tenacious bite power and boundless energy. Impy’s daily pastime consists of running around the enclosures, barking and provoking every lion, tiger and cheetah who would rise to the bait.
He has not tired of teasing his old friend, Levi, the caracal, either. Worse, he often shoots past Levi’s cage right under the noses of Spirit, the white tiger, and partner, Mia, the white lioness, making the two big cats zip crazily from one end of their pen and back.
The tiniest of the menagerie’s resident dogs, Pepper, the Chihuahua, steers clear of the lion enclosures and scampers out of sight when the big cats roar. Yet he can’t resist joining in the games with Nola, who is not yet big enough to intimidate a Chihuahua.
And there’s no question about exotic felines and canines jumping in bed together on a freezing night.
Mid-winter, I was left alone in camp, writing inside my tent while baby-sitting three lion cubs, when I heard a furtive scratching on my door.
Impy and Lucy, another Jack Russel, begged to be allowed inside with the lions. Soon Lady, the Boxer, whined to be admitted in as well.
I ended up with two dogs snuggling with three lions while I typed with a third dog draped on my lap. A couple of yards away, the adults roared in their enclosures. In between, the hyenas whooped and the jackals yelped.
I almost gave up when I heard a forlorn meow outside – the owner’s domestic cat.
While the dogs and the cubs are best buddies, the owner separates them as soon as the exotics grow larger than their surrogate nurses. A well-meaning half-ton lion can easily kill a less than 100-pound dog in play.
In Broxbourne England’s Paradise Wildlife Park, Cash, the family German shepherd dog, made friends with Bruno, the tiger, when the latter was a yearling. But obviously, their master kept them apart when Bruno grew too big for roughhousing.
Of course, some adult lions, like Bonedigger, who made headlines recently, stayed on with their pals. The 500-pound cat grew up with Milo, an 11-pound miniature sausage dog, in the G.W. Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma.
But the fact that Bonedigger is disabled made the living arrangement with Milo quite feasible. The lion suffers from a congenital metabolic bone disease that crippled him.
I’d like to think that Nola, my gentle lioness, might still defer to Lady, her surrogate mom, when she’s a fully grown, over 300-pound huntress.