In the wild, two lions and a tiger will kill each other.
That’s why Mother Nature assigned lions to the parched savannas of Africa and tigers, to the dappled forests of Asia.
But Rockstart – Rocky for short, and Nala, the Barbary lions, hit it off with Detonator – Det, the Bengal tiger. They treated each other like family – a real pride – for almost twenty years.
A crazy old couple in Fallon, Nevada rescued the triumvirate from abusive owners and threw them together in a single enclosure with a darker agenda in mind – to milk donations from unwary Americans.
The most senior cat, Rocky, descended from black-maned lions who fought gladiators to the death in the colosseum and ate Christians in Roman times. His first owner, a Vietnam veteran, put up a roadside zoo, used war lingo to name his big cats and abandoned them whenever he liked.
During one such time, he chained Rocky to a pit in the middle of the desert without food, water or shade. The lion burrowed in the sand to escape the merciless sun but his brains were fried and he was dying by the time rescuers reached him.
The police only turned up in the menagerie because Det bit a boy-visitor who poked his hand through his cage bars. The mother reported the tiger and wanted him shot.
Det meant no harm. He simply loathed boys. Since he was a cub, a Pauite girl from the nearby American Indian reservation mothered him and took him begging for food in the national park whenever his owner abandoned the animals.
Det was about 300 pounds then, more than double his current size. But he loved his Indian caretaker and allowed her to walk him like a giant dog on a leash. When she fled from her abusive parents into the mountains, Det guarded her fiercely and fended off a would-be rapist.
Nala, the Barbary lioness, worked as a full-time “photo op” cub in another state until she grew too big to pose with humans who pay for souvenir shots of themselves wrapped around a jungle princess.
At first, dumped together in the largest enclosure in the haphazardly established Fallon sanctuary, the triumvirate did nothing but spit, snarl and growl at each other.
It took months before they calmed down. But they were young then. Rocky was three; Det, two and Nala, one.
Eventually, they played, sunbathed and snoozed together but ate apart. They have their own dietary preferences and their own food bowls in separate areas.
It was midnight in winter when I met the odd pride – all senior cats by then. Det was fifteen, Rocky sixteen and Nala, thirteen.
In the dark, the monstrous, blind Det approached me as if we’ve been friends all our lives. He chuffed at me lovingly. When I pressed my palms and face against the wire mesh, he shoved his wet nose against mine and gave me a thorough washing with his rough tongue.
A couple of yards away, Rocky and Nala sat side by side, watching us. They acknowledged my presence by meeting my gaze and blinking softly. But Det is the pride’s alpha and from day one, he marked me as his property.
Because Det is almost 700 pounds, bigger than the lions, and the acknowledged boss, he always approaches me first. The lions can only come to me once Det has finished our courtesies.
Still, I’ve always marvelled at Det’s sweetness. He’s been blinded by cataracts for years and can only navigate the huge enclosure because he has memorized every nook and corner of it. Worst, he’s in constant pain because of a hip fracture that never healed.
An animal like Det would be extremely dangerous and grumpy, attacking without provocation, lashing out at cage mates and carers to displace his agony.
Instead, at the sound of my footsteps, Det would rush to my side of the fence, nuzzle me, and rasp me eagerly with his tongue. He never threatened me and always listened when I talked. But he can’t play anymore like he used to and at the end of our conversation, he’d return to Rocky to keep him company.
Sometimes, they’d disagree and have spats. Det would rear up, growling and snarling. Rocky always rolled over in submission, exposing his soft throat and belly to placate his buddy.
The rest of the time, they slept in one den box, sunbathing together, grooming each other, like they were brothers of the same species.
If Rocky beats Det to the center of the box at bedtime and hogs all the space, the tiger chuffs and nudges the lion. Rocky grunts and makes room so Det can snuggle in. Then the tiger curls up, sighs and closes his sightless eyes.
Nala sleeps alone in the second den box though she romps with the boys for exercise. In winter, they pile up, all three of them, inside the third den box, which is heated twenty-four hours.
Nala always teases Rocky at mealtimes, making a mad mock dash for his dish before settling down to her own.
Because Rocky almost starved to death and never forgot it, plus his brain injury left him with not much pleasure except eating, he’s deathly possessive of his food, growling horribly, pawing the ground, hurling his half ton self against the wire fence at mealtimes.
Det and Nala, I can hand-feed, but not Rocky.
Before sunset, I’d lug iron pans heaped with exotic cat chow and raw chicken (each cat is partial to certain body parts) to their pen. Rocky and Det’s rations are laced with steroids to ease their pain, but of course, the drug wrecks their kidneys and digestive systems.
Always, Nala will race Rocky to his food dish, scampering away at the last minute as he lunges at her with fangs and claws unsheathed. Then she darts to her own pan to eat.
During the day, Nala amuses herself, terrifying paying visitors, especially kids. When people come to a gap in the fence meant for photographers, she’d wait until they snap their shots before she pounces. She loves to eat cameras!
With me, Nala prefers to play chase, which promptly got me in trouble with Rocky.
First time I raced her round and round the enclosure, the old lion rose from his nap and planted himself between Nala and me.
He thought I was hunting his mate!
I told him he’s nuts. We’re just playing. I’d have played with him too, but all he wants to do is sleep.
Rocky looked me up and down as I talked to him, blinked, eyed Nala, looked back at me and grunted. Then he turned away and let us play.
Strangely, from then on, Rocky began to approach me. He wanted me to hand-comb his mane but growled when I hesitated.
No human has touched him for a long time so his crowning glory is matted and snagged. I apologized and worked my fingers through whatever part of his mane I can reach through the wires.
Of course, I was Det’s property. The alpha tiger demands the right to greet me first each morning and bid me goodnight before retiring. If Nala tries to wedge herself between us, Det swats her with his mighty paw, compelling her to beat a hasty retreat.
After Det returns to his den box, only then can Nala approach me. She’d rub against my hand, goading me to scratch her behind the ears. I’ll whisper her name over and over, losing myself in her amber eyes fringed by thick lashes. At such times, they seem almost gentle.
Then I’ll become aware of Rocky watching us and Nala graciously gives way to her mate.
Rocky snuggles against the wires, back turned to me, a gesture of trust. If I feel he’s in pain, I’d sing to him my mother’s lullabies and he’d hum back.
Rocky was the first to go. He simply crawled in the heated den box and never woke up. He was eighteen. Nala followed, aged sixteen. She could have lived ten years more. But what’s the point without Rocky to tease at every feeding?
Det, the one I love most, held out a year longer and died at nineteen.
Together, we were once a mixed-species pride – an old lion, a hyperactive lioness, a blind tiger and a petite human.
Every dawn and dusk, I’d start them roaring with a low grunt. Det would moan back, Nala would pick up the harmony and Rocky would bellow until the desert thrums with our calls.
Forever, they live on in my heart.