Thursday, December 17, 2009
Their diversity is their strength?
The three animals above were confiscated from Atlanta area drug dealers eight years ago -- at age two months -- and delivered to the Noah's Ark Animal Rescue Center in Locust Grove, Georgia. The lion, tiger, and bear -- unimaginatively named Leo, Shere Khan, and Baloo -- have been brought up together since their youth, and evidently get along fine together. (Rudyard Kipling, based in India, did not include a lion in his Jungle Tales book, so Leo had to settle for being named after an astrological sign.)
Baloo and Shere Khan are particularly close, because they both rise early and like to play. Leo, being a lion, prefers to sleep till late. The animals' natural instincts kick in in other ways as well. Since tigers and bears like water, the zookeepers have a creek running through their enclosure. Lions evolved in Africa, where the rivers contain hippopotamuses and crocodiles, both easily capable of killing a lion. So Leo has an instinctive aversion to water. Bears get fish, notably salmon, from northern rivers, so Baloo likes to play in the water. And tigers are strong swimmers; tigers from the Sunderbans mangrove swamps of India have been known to swim out to fishing boats, capsize them, and kill the occupants.
Diane Smith, assistant director of the rescue center, pointed out, "They are totally oblivious to the fact that in any other circumstance they would not be friends." True enough. Had they grown up in the wild and encountered each other there, each of these apex predators would have attempted to kill the others, or at the very least, avoided them.
The Koreans used to stage fights between lions and tigers, which would inevitably result in the death of one of the animals. Initially they used Siberian tigers, but those tigers were not aggressive enough, and would be killed by the lions, so they switched to Bengal tigers, which sometimes bested the lions. (When I was a child and would ask my father which would win in a fight, he would say the tiger. And that is what one would think, given the tiger's greater size and strength. But it's not that simple: a tiger generally pounces on its prey, whereas a lion clamps its jaws around the throat of its prey, which is the more effective fighting technique when two big cats are involved.)
The picture above was taken at an opportune time: it looks as if the three animals have just had a happy play date and are now heading home. It is surprising, at least after looking at the picture above, to hear that the felines each weigh around 350 pounds, whereas the bear weighs 1000. Black bears in the wild generally don't get above 500 or 600 pounds, whereas tigers get up to 660 pounds, and male lions 550 (there is more sexual dimorphism among lions). But bears have the ability to put on fat more easily than the other two, since fat is crucial to their survival during the long winter months when they hibernate. So a well fed bear in captivity has more potential to grow obese.
Unexpected fact: until 10,000 years ago, lions were the most widespread large land mammal after humans. They ranged all over Africa, from Western Europe to India, and in the Americas from the Yukon to Peru.
"Leo" is obviously a female (she lacks a mane), so if the tiger is a male, offspring could conceivably result. When a male lion mates with a female tiger, the offspring is called a liger; when it happens the other way around, which is rarer, the offspring is called a tigon. Ligers generally end up much bigger than either parent, since the lion sire passes on a growth gene, but the corresponding growth inhibitor gene is absent in the female tiger. So ligers can often reach lengths of ten to twelve feet and weigh upwards of 1000 pounds. (Male ligers are generally sterile, but female ligers have been known to produce offspring.)
One can't help but wonder what lessons this happy trio can impart to human beings. If a European, an African, and an Asian were, as far as they knew, the only people on earth, they would probably get along fine as well. It is only when there are large numbers of each that racial discord arises.
At least this rescue center can honestly claim that its diversity is, if not a strength, at least not a weakness.
But only, of course, under the most carefully controlled and artificial of circumstances.