Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion, Panthera leo

A pair of lions (one male, one female) from West Midlands Safari Park. Notice the size difference between the two (never mind the visual size difference caused by that mane!). Also, the female demonstrates on her coat something awesome about lions. Though they look uniform in colour, they actually have very faint striping across their backs and faint spotting on their legs. (Credit: User:Robek)

What top ten list of cats is complete without the so-called ‘King of the Jungle’ that is, actually, more a Prince of the Plains.

I’ll level with you. I like lions. I love lions like I love any other kind of cat. But they make this list for one reason and one reason alone.

Sociability.

Most of the cats we have talked about so far are solitary or, at most, might pair up for a bit. Lions are one of the few social cats, cats that organise themselves around a community group, that we know of. In fact they may be the only wild cat we know of that does this. Feral domestic cats tend to socialise, but I don’t know whether you would consider them ‘wild’. So the lion is the only representative of a truly social species in all the felidae.

That’s not to say there aren’t other cool things about them. They’re infinitely cool, they’re bloody cats! But, personally there are things I would put in ‘my’ top ten over lions. But this isn’t ‘my’ top ten, it’s ‘the’ top ten.

So lions form groups, known as Prides, generally comprised mainly of females and generally one to a few males. Their sexual dimorphism (remember what that means? Difference in size, shape or behaviour between males and females) is apparent.

A lion pride on the Masai Mara. When not busy hunting, the bulk of the pride likes to bask in the shade of the trees that dot the landscape. (Credit: Ralf Κλενγελ)

Males are significantly larger than females, possessing a beautiful, thick mane of fur around their neck and shoulders. Females tend to be smaller with a uniform, dusky-straw coloured coat.

That might make you think the males are the hunting powerhouses but they’re not. They do a lot of walking and making noise. Male lions are sort of like armed police or that baseball bat you keep beside your door that you haven’t touched for ten years. They are mainly there not for what they do on the daily, but what they may need to do. Besides being handy for a quick fuck and keeping the pride going, of course.

One of the biggest threats to a pride of lions, particularly if they have young, is a male lion. If there are multiple lions associated with a pride there will almost always be a hierarchy or relatedness involved (perhaps two or three brothers who all have a stake, genetically, in each other’s kids) but an entirely unrelated male lion will eat your kids, murder you and fuck your pride. It’s just how romance works in the lion world. Humans buy chocolates, go on dates and book romantic weekend getaways. Lions eat your children, fuck you and steal your house.

So most of a male lion’s job is to make enough noise to deter other male lions and, if necessary, demonstrate enough physical prowess to scare them off.

As I have to continually tell people who want to use ‘alpha lion’ or ‘lion energy’, when they’ve basically been a trouble-maker or a bully about something, you’re chatting shit.

The toughest lions, the most dominant lions are the ones who do not fight. When you are built like lions are built, when you have the weapons lions have, a fight that doesn’t kill you will not make you stronger. Broken bones without setting cause weaknesses, slowness and limps. Torn muscles and tendons are in a habit of not growing back right if at all. Wounds get infected.

In the wild lions rarely, properly, scrap – because it’s fucking stupid and will get you killed. They’ll roar, they’ll posture, they’ll flash manes, they may rear up, maybe a little cat-slap here and there but a true blood-and-guts scrap is rare. If two lions went at each other with the effort and intensity of two human MMA fighters I can guarantee you end up with two dead lions.

THE STRONGEST LION DOESN’T FIGHT, HE FINDS A WAY TO WIN WITHOUT FIGHTING!

With this form it is easy to see how the male lion, with his windswept mane, and that stoic, majestic silouette, has become a mythological embodiment of what it means to rule, to dominate and to conquer. Yet the strongest male lions are those who learn how best to use their form to fight the least. (Credit: Ru1Schoeman)

I have to say that all the time to dickheads with the wrong idea about nature. The kinds of fool who thinks ‘survival of the fittest’ literally means ‘the fittest’ like the person who can squat the most or run the fastest…Nah. It means whoever has the most kids, by hook or by crook, by honour or deceit. Biological, evolutionary fitness is the strength and longevity of your genes and male lions, they figured it out.

Humans – well the thing about being so clever is it doesn’t half make you fucking stupid.

Oh and, to all of you homophobes out there who think homosexuality is unnatural, both sexes of lion have been observed gaying it up. Along with a ridiculously large number of other species, including primates.

Back to the lions and their social organisation; Male lions, then, are the bouncers. They mainly deal with the trouble, though not exclusively. Some of the females will get involved, especially if it is say hyenas hassling lions off a kill. The females mainly deal with the hunting and the cub rearing. What is incredible is further social specialisation has been noted. For example slower females, when hunting, may act in a herding or decoy role, leaving the chase up to the faster females. Stronger, faster females may get involved in a defensive role with the males while others lag behind.

Kitten tax! Here we see a lion cub bonding with an older female, likely its mother, through grooming and head-boops. Lions exhibit these kinds of social behaviours more than most other types of cat. (Credit: David Dennis)

It’s remarkable because social intelligence is generally associated with an increased general intelligence and, especially, an increased necessity for communication. Lions are demonstrably clever cats and they are very expressive, having a wide array of sounds, facial gestures and social behaviours (head rubbing, mutual grooming, roars and growls) that indicate that intelligence.

People like to think of cats as a bit dim but specialised. They are really good hunters but what else? You know? Like I can train my dog to dance between my legs, what can your cat do?

Lions are the cat that makes those sorts of reductive arguments redundant. They’re incredible creatures, really. I know it might seem like I’m just trying to justify it to myself because I wouldn’t put them in my top ten, but I’m not.

The only reason they’re not in my personal top ten is because they’re so obvious, they’re so well known, they’re a class above. It’s like asking for the greatest football (soccer) player right now – Most people will begin their answer with “Besides Messi and Ronaldo, obviously…” well I feel like that with cat species. “Besides lions, obviously…”

They are a figurehead for catkind – Head spokescat, chief brand officer, executive in charge of marketing, top cat in the popularity department – Lions are too obvious.

Not only that but they used to be abundant and diverse, too. Lion species once wandered the globe from East to West. Europe had lions, Asia had lions, Africa had lions and America had lions. They were the Oprah of cats “You get a lion, and YOU get a lion…” All different species filling much the same niche, that of big cat. Different species and subspecies of lion once dominated the landscape making them so closely related to so many other big cats that they have been known to hybridise with at least two. Lions and Tigers have been known to hybridise to make Ligers and Tigons, but Leopons also exist – a hybrid of lions and leopard.

I’ve been so busy talking about unusual stuff about lions I haven’t even got to the nitty-gritty.

Predominantly an African species, there is still an extant population, the Asiatic lion, in Gujurat India. This is, though, the only wild population we know of outside Africa.

A battle-scarred old King, a male Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) sits in quiet dignity as one of the few representatives of his kind outside of the continent of Africa. (Credit: Paulmshr14)

It wasn’t an uncommon sight in Europe until the advent of Western civilisation. Herodotus records lions in Greece around 300BC; populations would have lasted in areas around the Caucasus until around the 10th century, the Middle-East even later still!

Basically the point I’m trying to get it is if you’re wondering why there are no lions on your doorstep when, until comparatively recently, they were seemingly everywhere…you’re to blame.

Humans do not like to share their habitat with anything that could kill them and/or their livestock so we persecute the shit out of them. As we swept across Europe, ‘civilising’ the place we started killing off our large carnivores because they’d eat our sheep or our children and the next thing you know the IUCN has you listed as vulnerable and besides your tiny Asian holiday home you’re stuck in Africa.

Then there’s the other baggage with lions.  

You see, lions were once exceptionally common across Africa and Asia.

Do you know who else grew up around Africa and Asia?

That’s right, Homo sapiens, humans.

The remarkable Löwenmensch or Lion-Man – a mammoth-ivory carving, carbon dated to between 35,000-40,000 years ago, not only one of the earliest known depictions, by humans, of a lion, but one of the earliest known zoomorphic (animal shaped) depictions in human history! (Credit: Dagmar Hollmann / Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 4.0)

Lions have been a part of our cultural identity since culture. The Chauvet Cave paintings, and Lascaux paintings in the Ardéche region of France, believed to be somewhere around 15,000-30,000 years old seem to depict cats, likely lions. An ivory carving of a lion-headed figure from Germany has been carbon-dated at around 39,000 years old. Egyptians depict lions so damn much. Some of their earliest tomb paintings, dating back nearly 4,000 years, depict lions, they have lion-based gods and goddesses – particularly Sekhmet and Bastet, the Mesopotamians depict lions in reliefs dating back to around the 7th century BCE, the Romans and Greeks depict lions or use lions as symbols. Pre-Islamic middle-eastern cultures, Indian cultures, Balkan cultures, all depict lions or use lions as symbols. In Islamic tradition today the lion is a symbol of courage and bravery – This is before we even get to the sheer amount of exceptional lion symbology in Judeo-Christian mythology. I mean, Christians being thrown to the lions in ancient Rome is not even the start of it. The Lion is the very symbol of Jerusalem and still features on Jerusalem’s city flag and coat of arms. The story of Daniel and the lions (Book of Daniel), Samson killing a lion (Book of Judges), Saint Mark is associated with lions, Jesus is associated with lions…Judeo-Christian culture is just lions all the way down. Even Aslan, C. S. Lewis’ famous lion of ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ and ‘Narnia’ series fame is associated with Christ!

The Lion of Judah, on tiles from Mosav Zkenim Synagogue, symbolic in Judaism and regarded as the symbol of the Tribe of Judah. It later took on significance in both Christianity (via the Book of Revelations) and Rastafarianism. (Credit: Talmoryair)

This is why I wouldn’t have them on the list!

It’s almost like lions are a part of us. I shouldn’t need to tell you they are one of our top ten cats, they’re a given.

In their natural form much abused and taken for granted. I worry for their condition as the areas they currently dwell, in sub-Saharan Africa, are hugely susceptible to climate change, as well as habitat fragmentation and human exploitation. We are beginning to reap rewards of wildlife tourism and allowing local populations to find value in having the cats around, but can they survive the trials to come in their physical form? I don’t know.

What I do know is that as a kindred species, as a species were grew up with in our cultural cradle, lions will live as long as humans do, even if only as a mythology. The myth of lion will last as long as myth itself, maybe modified, maybe adapted to whatever culture it is suited to, but the lion, in that sense, can never die until we all do.

The lion, number 6 on this list but, technically on a list far and above it, as one of the top ten animals vital to the human identity.

Want to read more cat? I don’t blame you. Click here to read about the previous entry, the jaguar, Panthera onca, at number 7.

Or move on to our number 5 best cat – The black-footed cat, tiny, adorable, voracious, murderous and unbelievable cute!

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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