My “lionese” is not as good as my “tigrese”. But I can still “talk” passably to lions, both wild and captive.
For starters, lions hum and grunt. They woof, purr and puff, though not the way tigers do. They also moan, meow, chitter and babble when they are curious or complaining about something. When irritated, they growl and snarl.
Most famously, they roar to advertise the boundaries of their territory, frighten rivals, cement social bonds, locate their pride members and sometimes, I suspect, just for the hell of it.
My first African lion, whom I met when I was fifteen, taught me everything about feline manners and greetings.
So, during my rounds as a big cat volunteer, I politely announce my presence each time I approach the enclosure of my charges, contracting my belly and grunting. “Unnngh! Unnngh!” That’s their cue to step forward and greet me in turn.
Vocalizing in the same way, I was surprised to get the attention of wild lions in South Africa’s Kruger and Karoo National Parks.
The Kruger pride was setting out for their evening hunt when I called to them. They froze. All ears swivelled in my direction. Then slowly, they turned their heads and fixed their amber eyes on me.
These lions are used to busloads of noisy tourists taking snapshots of them everyday. Mostly, they ignore humans, the way their caged kind snub oglers at the zoos.
But it must be a novelty to hear a two-footed visitor greeting them in their own fashion. In fact, one handsome male in the Karoo was so curious he approached and stood less than two yards from me.
It didn’t matter that half my body was dangling out of the vehicle’s open window, well within striking distance. If he decides to attack, I’m a goner.
Unafraid, I gazed back at the lion and blinked. It’s a no-no to stare. That’s a sign of aggression. The lion blinked back. Great! I hummed at him softly. He lifted his muzzle for a whiff of me and stepped closer.
It was too much for my companions. They screamed in terror and the lion took off.
I only wish I’ve met him alone, in the bush, on foot.
Anyway, when greeting their humans and each other, lions rub their bodies against yours and scent-mark you. They also do head butts – which I don’t practice even with my hand-raised felines. It’s not wise to get knocked down by a half-ton cat.
Sure, I can safely lie down with my huge felines, despite trainers’ vehement advice against it. I can even lie on the ones I trust and use them as pillows. But to fall in front of them is another matter. It triggers their predatory instinct to pounce.
I do touch noses with my big kitties – though of course, I risk a bite in the face – and I often get mixed results with my lionesses.
My Gir lioness, Phloy, would touch her nose to mine and then toss her head, her golden eyes glinting, inviting me to frolic.
Mia, my white African lioness, would half-close her blue-green eyes as she takes in my breath then put out her pink tongue to smother me with kisses.
Strangely, I discovered, I can talk to my lions in plain English. In fact, the language doesn’t matter. Just talking to distressed, excited or angry lions can calm them – for as long as you are calm yourself.
While lions don’t understand human words (unless they’ve been specifically trained to obey verbal commands), they are adept at reading nonverbal signals – from the tone and the pitch of your voice, facial expression, to the way your body moves.
That’s how they pick out their prey and establish their pride’s pecking order, in the first place.
Odd, of all big cats, male lions are the hardest for women to handle. They instinctively dominate you because in their natural hierarchy, females are subordinate food providers and mates.
On the other hand, they can be very protective, once they accept you as a member of their pride.
I can never forget Phet, the brother of my Gir Lioness, taking up guard duty as I curled up with his sister to sleep. He sprawled beside us facing the direction of danger – the path in front of the cage.
Whenever he hears anything suspicious, Phet will rise and check it out, ready for battle, then he’d hurry back to make sure his sister and I are safe before he lies down again.
But I nearly got in trouble with male lions who misjudged my actions.
My most recent one was with Sledge, the alpha of the white lion pride in Limpopo, South Africa.
Lions love playing with sticks, even as adults. So I break off twigs for everyone and play with them daily on my morning and evening rounds.
Sledge was regally sprawled atop his mound, holding court with his harem of females, when I appeared with a handful of twigs. It’s not their feeding day and every lion saw I carried sticks, not meat.
Tabitha, the youngest lioness, crouched to spring. For her, I waved one stick and hurled it over the fence.
I gawked as all seven lions jumped for the stick, churning up great clouds of dust.
Tabitha had the advantage and grabbed it first. Problem was, Sledge thought I tricked him. The enraged alpha whirled on me, growling.
Unfazed, I gently scolded Sledge, the way I did with my Barbary lion, Rocky, when his lioness enticed me to chase her and he confronted me, mistakenly presuming I was hunting his mate.
Sledge grumbled at the end of my speech but accepted my explanation and returned to his mound.
As a finale, I visited Mak, the menagerie’s biggest white male, in the next pen. He was wounded and in an ugly mindset after a spat with his mate but he walked with me. Then he started licking the electrified wires.
“No, Mak!” I cried. I don’t want him to get shocked.
He stopped without taking his ice-blue eyes off me. Then he glanced at the top of his 14-foot high fence. I could almost hear him thinking: “I can jump out.” Again, he looked at me, as if to make sure I understood.
I shook my head. “Mak, I know you’re in a rotten mood. But don’t get yourself killed. Please!”
For whatever reason, my big cats always respond to that magic word: Please.
Mak blinked at me, heaved an audible sigh and padded back to his mate.
What I love most about lions is that they can be reasoned with.