Saturday, 9 May 2015

Out of the Jaws of a Lion

     What would you do if you were a teenager, and your baby brother was taken by a lion? It happened to fourteen-year-old Tristram Kay just five days before Christmas, 1961. He had been living just outside of Bulawayo during the last golden years of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, with his parents, his younger brother, and two lions. Older sister Leslie had left home. As far as I can establish, his brother must have been about eight years old. Despite not being specific about when he was born, his mother she did record the circumstances of his conception.
One spring a friend gave me a little white Chinese figurine and I put it on my dressing-table, all unaware that it was the Chinese Goddess of Fertility. Nine months later our second son, Oliver, was born. I threw the figurine into the fishpond, and the mosquito-fish increased so fast that we bailed them out by the bucketful and sold them back to the pet shop.
     If you wish to know what sort of people his parents, Robert and June Kay were, you might like to read how they established the Moremi Game Park in what is now Botswana fifteen months later. They had a penchant for lions, which they adopted on a raise-and-release basis. Thus, at the date in question, they had two lions: Chink, a full-grown female, and the crippled male, Timber. How the latter arrived is a story in itself. They were introduced to him at a circus the day before he was due to be put down. The poor fellow had been born in a zoo, a descendant of generations of cage-bred lions. Furthermore, rickets had left him with short, misshapen legs far too small for his body. Too weak to use the pads of his hind paws, he was reduced to half-crawling on his hocks. They fell in love with him right away, and paid out twenty pounds for him - which was still quite a sum then.
     With an improved diet he put on weight, and for the first time he was able to walk on all fours. Just the same, although fully adult, he weighed only about 120 lb [55 kg], a third of that of his female companion. He was a gentle lion, the only one they ever knew whom it was perfectly safe to handle while he was feeding. While Chink was chained in the back yard, Timber was allowed free range of the yard and house, like any household pet. Everyone loved Timber, and Timber loved everybody. The only exception was Oliver. As the baby of the family, he was his mother's favourite - a position coveted by Timber.
     On the day in question they were on safari. Timber was chained to a tree while June took Chink's travelling cage to the river to be washed. Suddenly, they heard Oliver scream out: "Mummy!" Racing over to Timber's tree, the parents found Tristram already there, his shirt drenched in blood while he cradled his brother in his arms. Quickly carrying the little boy to his bed, they discovered he was bleeding from his leg and tooth marks were present on his back. As they washed, bandaged, injected him with penicillin, and fed him, he begged them not to shoot Timber. He had known the lion didn't like him, but had approached too close in any case. Meanwhile, Timber cowered whenever they approached, and gave the cub's call for protection.
     The immediate crisis over, June asked Tristram what had happened. His reply staggered her.
     "Timber had Oliver by the back. I hit him over the nose, and then over the ear, but it didn't seem to make much difference. So I pulled his mouth open, and then I sort of picked him up and threw him against a tree. Oliver was screaming so much that I didn't have time to think."
      What can a mother say when her son tells her something like that? Does any mother really know her son? For that matter, does anybody really know himself until he is put to the test? Later, she did wonder aloud to her husband how the boy could have thrown the lion against the tree, but he pointed out that Timber didn't weigh so much, and with the adrenalin flowing, Tristram simply wouldn't have noticed it.
     The next morning June had a face-to-face confrontation with Timber, and put him in his place by whacking him over the nose. His life was spared, which no doubt pleased Oliver. As for Tristram, I have not been able to follow his progress, but he must be pushing seventy by now. However, if you do happen to meet him, make sure you shake his hand, because it once pried open the jaws of a lion.

Reference: June Kay, The Thirteenth Moon, Reader's Digest condensed book, 1971. This appears to have been a condensed combination of three books by the same author: The Thirteenth Moon (1960), Okavango (1962), and Wild Eden (1964).

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