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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.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting, John. Thanks for all the background. It does seem such an unlikely friendship and prompt your question about what it might say about humans. I think that it is a great strength when we can transcend tribal ties, but it takes unusual early programming to do so.
G

John Craig said...

Thanks Guy. There is certainly a lot of programming going on right now with the constant recitation of the "Our diversity is our strength" mantra.

Makes one wonder where it's coming from and whom it benefits.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a fan of external programming, particularly when it's politically motivated. But I do think it's constructive to give people opportunities to loosen the tribal ties if they are ready to do so.
G

John Craig said...

I agree with that sentiment completely. The problem now is that there is a double standard, some groups are allowed to act in their self-interest while others are supposed to be self-abnegating. If everyone would loosen their tribal ties equally, I'd be all for it.

arthur thurman said...

Catching up on a lot of your old posts since I only discovered the Blog a few months ago. Just a side note to add; while stationed overseas (Guam to be exact) there was a limited number of Americans on the island and most of us were military. You saw the same type of grouping amongst us at clubs, beaches and similar social settings if only because we recognized our kinship of country. I had more than a few candid conversations with others lamenting the fact that the racial and cultural lines would get redrawn as soon as we were stateside.

John Craig said...

Arthur --
Thanks for taking the effort to go back this far. I think my son had a similar experience when he was in the Army: he was friendly with a lot of people he wouldn't normally have been outside the service. (He was in Alaska and Afghanistan, and was at an isolated COP in the latter.)

Steven said...

A man brought a bear and a lion to California during the gold rush to entertain the prospectors and miners by making the two animals fight. The bear beat the lion and some other animals they made him fight too.

The theory is that the lion has a relatively thin skull and the bear can easily beat the lion with a blow to the head.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Interesting, thanks. And I guess the lion is therefore tailor-made as an opponent for the bear since bears kill other animals with a swipe to the head.

I wrote somewhere, on another post, about lion-tiger fights. The Koreans used to stage these, and surprisingly, the lions used to win, at least against Siberian tigers. After they started bringing Bengal tigers in, the outcomes changed. But a tiger kills by leaping on top of its opponents, whereas a lion goes for the throat, and when a tiger is midair, the lion has a chance to go for its throat. That's what I heard, in any case.

Steven said...

hehe that was in this post John. That's why I told you about the bear.

Steven said...

Good memory though, you said the exact same thing as above.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Oops, I guess I should have read the post before responding to you.