Big Cats: Getting Into the Minds of Lions (DVD Review)

Into the Pride features Dave Salmoni, a zoologist and big cat trainer narrating his sojourn into the African bush to help calm a pride of aggressive “last-chance lions.” These are creatures who have been transferred from Namibia’s largest national park to the Erindi Private Game Reserve owing to their cattle raiding and aggressive ways towards humans, behavior officials wish to see altered to avoid driving away sorely needed tourist dollars. If the lions continue to conduct themselves in ways that drive away fearful tourists, they will be destroyed, a fate Salmoni is recruited to prevent.

[DVD cover image to be replaced]

This series introduced me to a deeper layer of relations between animals and humans; while I was aware of cattle raiding and the anger it provokes, I had been unaware that animals were tracked so distinctly as to facilitate decisions to remove them to other parks or preserves–or that their status could ever be probationary. I suppose I was used to Animal Planet programs that show Landies and lions gamely (no pun intended) sharing the space for a few photo ops and observations to settle into tales brought back home. While I had heard of some tourist tragedies, I was under the impression they were rare, and didn’t think the possibility of more were even of concern to those in charge (in a large sense, that is; I am sure the possibilities are always worrisome).

Enter Salmoni, whose words and delivery ushered in my mixed response from the get go. His stated mission is to accustom the lions to humans and in so doing would get into their heads, and they into his, a statement that set me somewhat on edge. I doubted his claim to be alone outside business hours and speculated the possibility he thought himself more a friend of the lions than he really was–á la Timothy Treadwell, whose unsafe behavior around and anthropomorphic treatment of Katmai grizzlies directly resulted in the filmmaker’s and his girlfriend’s deaths. On the other hand, the absence of stiffness and occasional repetition in his words–“One thing about that natural vista thing–I forgot I’ll be out here alone”–also indicated lack of scripting, at least in a formal sense. Is he speaking off the cuff with genuine words? Or is Salmoni a gifted ad libber? With his background he would have the verbal repertoire to present well, and I didn’t doubt his concern for the lions. I did ponder, however, if his daredevil nature and comfortable relationship with the camera came with a bit of a price paid for by the cats. But I decided to trust him because at this phase, the aggressive lions didn’t seem to stand much of a chance otherwise.

Salmoni brings his training, experience and skills to the project, where he decides he will, in stages, get himself closer to the 16-cat pride in order to show them he is not a threat, as he is convinced they remember a history of aggression and repression from humans, resulting in lack of trust beyond what is typical. We see Cleopatra, the largest and dominant lioness, along with her babies, and Winnie, a younger lioness with slightly older cubs. The alpha male is Brutus, his skin marred with evidence of fighting, along with his smaller brother, the “pretty boy” Otis. The filmmaker aims at different points to get close to the cubs in steps, to show their mothers they are safe and enable them to trust humans enough to forego charging and other aggressive behavior. While he also seeks to create a relationship with Brutus–if the protector trusts him the others also will–his aim is to eliminate the continuity of the “bad behavior” to the next generation.

With baby steps Salmoni approaches the lions, speaking as he goes, lowering his gaze as well as body to show lack of threat, and backing away when communication indicates extreme discomfort. He does have a balancing act to consider: demonstrating to the grown-ups they don’t have to worry about his presence, but also ensuring he leaves on good terms so as not to enable a bad attitude. He allows a lion cub to play with his ten-year-old “lion sweatshirt” (with the scents of at least ten other lions on it), and fashions a tether ball to offer as an extension of himself that they can more confidently approach, while keeping a distance for the safety of both parties.

[Still photo from film to be replaced]

“Safety,” however, seems to be a mixed bag with Salmoni. He does concede the danger of some of his actions, such as his “patented bush walk” or crawling closer and closer to curious cubs perched on rocks when the mothers are off hunting. Sometimes, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if these were at least partly daredevil stunts to enable his celebrity and satisfy producers demanding high ratings (which they are less likely to get off of filming from a Land Rover). After all, tourists aren’t likely to leap from their cars to play with lions, so why would the big cats need to become accustomed to that sort of human behavior?

Salmoni himself answers this question with his observation that traditional scientists would critisize him based on their beliefs that they wouldn’t want to affect the animals’ behavior. While at the end of the day I remain undecided regarding the perhaps-extraneous nature of some of his methods, or the need for them, I would agree when he rightly points out that simply being there alters the cat behavior. Luke Hunter has much to say about Salmoni’s technique, and while we share some concerns, I’m not altogether certain Salmoni’s walking close to lions is in the long term as debilitating as Hunter claims it is. Of course, he has qualifications I do not, but the fact remains that though the statistics may be low, some prides are used to people and they will indeed just sit and watch the silly humans as their machinery goes click click click click.

This is what Salmoni states as his goal for this pride, an achievement that would prove to be a win-win: the lions are not destroyed and Namibia retains an industry that allows it to be more self sufficient. In the beginning, contrary to Hunter’s claim, the lions were not sitting around watching as the vehicles drove by. In fact they ran off, hid or charged, behavior that would bore or frighten visitors, in the end drying up tourist dollars. While some may latch onto the “almighty dollar” argument, the fact remains that individuals and nations have to make a living, and Namibia has the means to do so while simultaneously acting responsibly with the incredible natural beauties and creatures they have been gifted with. They invested good money to recruit and hire Salmoni rather than simply write off a group of mere cattle thieves.

That Salmoni cares for the critters is also evident, and he delves into information such as the danger of being a lion cub or the varying calls of Cleo to her offspring as well as to him. One was very much a warning, assertive: “Stay away from my babies.” Another was gentle and loving, “Come, children, dinner is ready.” He does indeed aim to obey these calls and takes them into consideration when he acts. He challenges them when Cleo or another lion extraneously charges, by holding out his shepherd stick from his perch on the rocket bike (later, on foot) and shouting, “Stop it!” (or some other demand to cease). I was fairly amazed that lions as aggressive as these were said to be actually listened to his directive.

[Fighting lions image to be replaced]


One of my favorite segments of the show came when Salmoni discusses lion interaction amongst themselves, including parent to child. Cleo returns from hunting to collect her babies, but not before Winnie had gone off with them further afield. Not finding her children, Cleo calls out to them repeatedly. Receiving no answer, she begins to panic. “For those of you who don’t think animals have emotions…” he comments. This line re-plays itself later when arises the issue of sibling rivalry.

Salmoni is perhaps a bit of a show off and seems to wear some of his more reckless actions (in comparison, creeping closer to the lions on foot not necessarily being one of them) as a badge of honor. I also wish he had talked more of some human behavior that can trigger cattle raiding. But he does give us glimpses of a group of lions as they grow along with him, and as he is witness to some lion interaction (Brutus and Otis) rarely seen and less understood by people. Moreover, his angle is one I’d not before seen and the footage was absolutely spectacular–including asides featuring other animals. My mixed responses perhaps reflect the contradictory nature of human-lion relationships and what I learned and contemplated added to the already immense respect I had for lions as part of nature’s great design.

This post previously appeared in 2013 at the blog’s alternative location.


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