I stunned to come across an amazing documentary this morning.
Last night, I was watching the Turtleman and (Not) Finding Bigfoot, so I left it on Animal Planet when I went to bed.
When I decided to turn the television on this morning, I noticed that the new incarnation of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was on, and I decided to watch just a few minutes of it.
The animal in question was a lioness, the last survivor of her pride that had been massacred by poachers in the Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia. That pride was the last one in the park, and she was the only member of her species for hundreds of miles.
The documentary focused upon a wildlife filmmaker named Herbert Brauer. He was interested in documenting how a single lioness might survive on her own.
So the footage showed her killing small antelope, and then the spotted hyenas would show up and steal it from her.
But then something strange started to happen.
She began to approach the vehicle that the filmmaker and his crew were using.
She began to roll over next to the vehicle, which in lion-speak is a way of saying that she seeks company.
And during the wet season when prey was more plentiful, she would kill something just to have the hyenas come by and steal it. Maybe she was trying to make friends with the hyenas, but hyenas aren’t terribly disposed to making friends with lions. They merely took her kills and ran off.
She was revealing the Brauer just exactly how social lions really are.
We often hear how important companionship is for lions, but I’ve always been a bit skeptical of that claim. I remember reading somewhere that the main reason why lions form prides in the first place is so that the females can be more easily guarded by coalitions of pride males, thereby preventing pride takeovers by outside males who then kill all the cubs in order to bring the lionesses back into estrus.
I was always skeptical that the prides meant that much to lions. It always seemed to me to be something that lions have only recently developed. I’ve seen footage of lions fighting so fiercely over carcasses that they wind up killing their own cubs that just happened to be in the way.
After a few years of filming this lioness, who was given then name “Lady Liuwa,” she decided to take the relationship to the next level.
One night she followed Brauer to his camp and just sat outside and watched him.
She wound up coming by every other night. There was no food in camp, and she never offered to stalk Brauer or anyone else.
She just longed for company.
For safety purposes, Brauer never let her come any closer than 15 feet. Even though she was a friendly lioness, she still had all her instincts and lethal teeth and claws.
It was when started doing this that Brauer really began to understand how lonely she was. It was at this time that he began to work with authorities to get a male lion brought in to be Lady Liuwa’s companion.
The first captured male lion died on his way to the park, but the second attempt, which brought in two maturing male lions, was quite successful. They joined up with Lady Liuwa, and she was no longer alone.
She had a pride once again.
The documentary was made in 2009, and I wondered what has happened since.
But the story of Lady Liuwa raises some important questions for me.
I have long been fascinated with the questions surrounding dog domestication, and I’ve found a lot of the literature on dog domestication somewhat lacking, mainly because too many experts reach for overly reductionist answers for these questions.
One of the best books to come out in recent years on the subject is Mark Derr’s How the Dog Became the Dog.
He posits a very complex scenario for how dogs became domesticated, and it has to be complex. The evidence that has accumulated through a wide variety of disciplines suggests that dog domestication had to have been a very complex process.
One part that Derr points out has been entirely left out of the discussion:
Were some wolves just wanting human company?
Wolves are more intensely social than lions are, and it would make sense that there might be a few wolves that somehow found themselves on their own that tried to seek out humans for companionship.
Maybe these lonely wolves played some role in dog domestication.
The story of Lady Liuwa is the story of what lengths social animals will go to in order to seek companionship.
Maybe something like this happened with a young wolf that dispersed from its natal pack.
Maybe it couldn’t find a mate anywhere, or maybe its initial mate had been killed.
And then it saw something in the roving bands of hunter-gatherers that made it think:
“Maybe I can trust them. Maybe we can be friends.”