Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Heart of a Lion

One spring morning in the mid-1960's, when I was about eleven years old, I woke up to a sound I had never ever heard before. It was the sound of my father crying, and not just crying, but sobbing. As far as I could tell, he was sitting at the kitchen table. Though I was two rooms away in a bedroom I shared with two sisters, in my young mind I could almost see him there at the table, head in hands, more distraught than I had ever thought possible. My mother was saying soothing things to him, with words I couldn't quite make out. It was still dark, which made the sorrow even more solid and hard to understand. Our father did not cry. What could have possibly made this happen?  Life felt very odd to me at that moment, the world had tipped on its axis. I was lying in bed, with the blankets pulled up around me, and no idea what to make of this.

After the house had warmed a bit and things had gotten quiet, I got up and went into the kitchen. My father had gone out and my mother was there alone. I pretended to be busy getting a bowl of cereal or something when I asked her, in my usual vague manner - not feeling free to intrude upon their private lives - what had happened.

Our father had, a few days earlier, purchased several birds, some considered rather exotic. He was going to add them to our growing collection of animals and birds that would inhabit the wild animal park they were creating, which was opening sometime in May, fishing opener more than likely. My parents had named it Deer Valley, as it was set in a valley between two small but busy tourist towns near where we lived.

I knew Dad had carefully constructed a pen for these birds in a corner of the barn, waiting for slightly warmer weather to transport them to the park. I'm sure he felt absolutely confident he'd built it in such a way as to prevent any intruders from entering it. He was a very careful man. But, the night before, that pen hadn't stopped a mink or weasel from finding a way into the barn, digging far under the fence, and killing every single one of those birds.

I don't know if my father was terribly distraught because of the loss of the birds - their lives, which I know he valued, and the cost, which would have been a lot for us in those days - or because he couldn't get past feeling responsible for not hearing what surely must have been a ruckus in the barn. Later, we talked about how the dog hadn't even barked, which seemed unusual. He had, for reasons now lost to time, went out early, before sun-up, to check on them. I wouldn't doubt that, on some intuitive level, he already knew before he entered the barn.

As my mom and I stood there in the kitchen, it dawned on me that my dad was not invincible after all, that it was possible for him to hurt to the point of crying, that he could feel real pain over life's sometimes scarring circumstances. It was a hard thing for me, to see my dad in this new light, as a fully-realized human being. And in that moment, I wished it wasn't true, that the mink had not gotten into the pen, my father had not sat at the kitchen table in the dark in the early morning and sobbed, I had not heard my mother quietly talking to him in her attempts at making it hurt less, and that we could go back to the way things were.

But we couldn't, and we didn't, and life went on. It was not the last of my father's hurts over the care of these animals. But it was the first. And although our animals were not exotic animals - they were deer and bear, red fox, buffalo, and other native animals - you might feel we had no business keeping any such animals, and you would be right. A few years later, my father's new awareness took hold and he let the business go. I remember him telling me that he'd come to see the animals as his "relatives."  He felt close to them and no longer wanted to be the keeper of the keys.

I thought about this last week as those exotic animals in Ohio met their death at the hands of men who would say they had no recourse, and were given the order to "shoot to kill."  The whole thing left me feeling unsettled and with more than a few questions, especially after reading that the animals didn't roam much farther than a few hundred yards from their fence. Yes, I've read all the reasons why they felt they had to shoot. I'm fully aware of the reasons why they felt tranquilizer guns would not have been a timely and effective solution. But I'm still left with questions.

I understand the fear local residents must have felt, knowing some of the animals had escaped previously and knowing the terrible damage that they could inflict on their lives, but I so wish it could have been another outcome than death to those beautiful animals. The image of that lion lying there dead is heartbreaking. I know, I know, better this way than a human life lost, but I still can't quite wrap my mind around what happened. Eighteen of the tigers were Bengal tigers, which are dangerously close to extinction. Why was this man allowed to keep these animals?
My next question is this: if the man who kept these animals had been someone other than a man who'd had previous run-ins with the law (he had recently served a year in Federal prison for having unregistered weapons) say a local banker, doctor, lawyer, or other respected businessman, someone with whom local law enforcement would more than likely be on good terms, would they have looked for other ways to deal with this problem than just "shoot to kill?"  Would they have handled it differently?  Or did they perhaps, just perhaps, act out their frustration with this man by simply eliminating the animals?   I'm sorry, but these are some of my questions.

In any case, these animals were killed through no fault of their own, but just by being the animals they were, and had always been.  It's hard for me to accept.  And it makes me very sad.

Here's Neil Young and "Ohio."  I can't help but think it's connected. Everything is.

The top photo is from National Geographic. The others are from news sources in Ohio.


  1. O, Teresa...I mirror your feelings about this completely. It is a tragic turn of events. I sobbed when I saw those Tigers, in their silent beauty and it looked to me like a statement of what we are doing to the earth itself, we human beings.
    I was especially annoyed when they brought Jack Hanna onto the tv screen to assure the public that it had to be done. I will never look at him the same again. How much more could it possibly take to use tranquilizer guns?? I'm sure I'm reacting so strongly because it is the beginning of deer season here and idiots will be shooting all around me and my home and there is nothing I can do about it.

    It hurts my heart to see animals slain for no good reason. I felt more anguish for the tigers and lions than I did for the dead man.

    Thanks for such a moving blog post today....bless you.

  2. This incident burned me right down to my soul. There is no question that this was an over reaction. Tranquilizers could have been used almost as easily as bullets.

    Clearly the majority of the blame falls on the fellow who collected these exotic animals but the government entity that issued the kill on site order was terribly ignorant.

    That these animals were wrestled from there native habitats, or wild animals born into captivity, and then executed for no known crime is nearly unforgivable.

    More evidence that the human race is greatly and flawed. We simply have no equal in this regard in the rest of the natural world.

  3. Oh, this post touched me in so many ways. Your realization that your father had a private and soft side, the killing of the animals.... I also had questions--some of the same that you brought up here. You are a gifted writer, crafting together these posts. Thank you.

  4. I have no answers about the animals.

    I was touched by the story of your father. As my dad began to fail and I saw how human he actually was I realized I was experiencing myself later in life as well. He was pretty much invincible his whole life so to speak.

  5. hello Teresa:
    This is such an incredibly powerful post. The pain of your father and the day of realising that a parent, someone whom is meant to be invincible to a small child, is really a mere human after all.

    And the Tigers. How deeply sad is all of this. Just another example we fear of the conflict between Man and Nature which seems increasingly off balance these days. We too have questions which do not seem to find answers.

  6. I hope the shocking photo of all those magnificent animals lying dead will send a message to potential exotic animal collectors and to legislators that the practice must end!

    If it's any consolation, the loss of the Siberian tigers probably won't have a negative affect for the species as a whole. The breeding of tigers is regulated to prevent inbreeding and to preserve a viable gene pool. Animals sold off to that selfish, demented man were not vital to that goal.

    But still, we are all a little poorer for living in a world minus the forty-some animals slaughtered in Ohio.

  7. I avoid the news. But this story trickled in, as many do, regardless of my avoidance. When I first heard that they had shot almost all the animals, I imagined them to be roaming around the town and that they had to track and hunt them down. When I came upon the pictures I was shocked to the core. These "dangerous" animals were just milling about together right near their home and didn't even know to run when shots were fired. Yes--it reminded me of Kent State...and I just watched Katyn last night...
    Your dad sobbing over the lost birds and knowing how he changed his mind about keeping wild animals...a memory that had to resurface with the horror of this slaughter.
    I did read a little about this online and, I'm sorry, it appear that revenge was taken on the animals because of hating the man who owned them. I wish they would make it illegal for people to keep exotic animals at all--period. And I used to work in pet shops. There's money in it, so everything from endangered snakes to tigers to birds are being snatched out of the forests and jungles...for cash. For pets. For fun. The majority of them die before they ever make it to sale.
    And the ones bred in captivity...so many people have no clue what they require and the commitment entailed. I carry bird guilt, myself. They are shuffled from place to place, owner to owner...or die because they aren't given what they need to survive.
    I'm glad your dad knew he didn't want to be the jailer anymore.

  8. Any comment I could've made has already been said. Still, it's a shame. After reading your post and watching the video I realized I know exactly where I was when I heard of the Kent State shooting. Just as well as I remember 9-11 and JFK's death. When will we ever learn...

  9. Let wild animals
    Be free, let hem live their lives
    In their chosen home.

  10. Teresa, I tried to send you a FB message but couldn't find you somehow. I was going to respond to your query on our blog. My email is on the Admin page if you want to email me.
    Jeanne K.

  11. I was very moved by your post today. For days now, I've been thinking of the admonition on the Guidestones about us not being a cancer on the earth, and making room for nature. This is a perfect example.

  12. Teresa, this poignant and powerful post touched me on so many levels; the profound moment of you realizing you father was devastated, the loss of the animals, yours and then those this week, Kent State. They all tie into each other in various ways, and they all leave me gasping for breath. You touched my heart.


  13. AKANNIE, Yes, hunting season is almost upon us, and I'm not even close to ready. Opening morning... I can't even think about it without remembering how unbearably sad I felt last year at hearing the gunshots just at sunrise.

    Jack Hanna was a disappointment for me, as well. Not acceptable at all. shame on him.

    WILD BILL, Yes, right down to the soul. The more I think about it, the more I feel free to use the word unforgivable, a word I almost never use.

    BOSSY BETTY, It was a hard thing for me to connect, but essential. All part of seeing with new eyes, finding new ways of Being.

    Thanks for your kind words about my writing. They're deeply appreciated.

    ONE FLY, "I was experiencing myself later in life." Interesting insight. Yes, It seems we do get a glimpse into our own selves. Perhaps they feel the same at some point in time..

  14. JANE and LANCE, The conflict between Man and Nature continues unabated. The song asks, "When will we ever learn?" I'm afraid of the answer. History certainly offers no hope. Perhaps the future does.

    Ms. SPARROW, Yes, a little poorer for our loss of these beautiful animals and for the callousness of their deaths.

    RITA, As usual, the media portrayed the story they wanted to tell, the kind that sells, but is often missing important ingredients, like the truth, which usually trickles out after most people have moved on to the next story. Thanks so much for your comments, and I hope you found Katyn as moving as I did.

  15. BOB, To this day, I cannot wrap my head around four students being killed and several others wounded by our own National Guard. Over protesting against a war. It's just like something out of a bizarre nightmare or Fellini film - too weird and unbelievable for words.

    PAUL, Thank you.

    JEANNE K, I couldn't get your email to work. I left FB, again. :) feel free to email me at my address listed in my profile.

    DJAN, I went back and checked on the Guidestones and yes, I was moved by the repetition of that idea and phrase. Whomever had them erected, they Knew.

    PENNY, We're all connected, it all ties in, I believe, Everything. Thanks for your comments.

  16. I was also deeply saddened as well as puzzled at the treatment of those animals.

  17. Montucky, This has raised some important questions, but I fear they will disappear with the next semi-big story. Perhaps already have. We, meaning humans, have a short little span of attention, it seems.

  18. Teresa, This is another fabulous post. I was so moved by your story about your father, both how you heard him weep and also the fact that he changed his mind about keeping those animals. It seems as though a lot of the people who keep exotic animals are in it for the big money, and from what I heard, Ohio has very lax laws about such things. I don't defend the law-enforcement guys who ordered and carried out the shooting, but I did have the impression that they were in over their heads. One more sad story.

  19. I agree the frustrations with this man were taken out on those poor animals, sad but true in many human circumstances. Frustrations in life are dealt with or taken out in the wrong ways. What a waste of precious animals lives, they were so innocent.

    I wonder if I would feel differently about my father now if I had heard him cry at the age you were when you heard your father cry? Seeing our parents as not so invincible might be a good thing for children to see.

  20. You take real life events and precious memories and weave them into a tale which vividly tells of one of the great tipping-moments in all our lives - the moment when we discover vulnerability in our parents.

  21. Sad to see this chain of events happen. The animals i have are like chidren to me and I wouldn't let them run loose. A talk show held that question, of course he had given up on his own life as well.

  22. NANCY, It does appear Ohio has very lax laws and for certain they were in over their heads, but....

    Thank you for the kind words about this post and my father.

    LINDA, So many people never look at the ways they take out frustration with one person or circumstances through another person or set of circumstances. Never looking at motive is an excuse to plow through life never having to answer for behaviors, though, it seems to me. I hope the people involved with this give themselves the gift of looking at their involvement and try to find better ways of dealing with Life.

    Perhaps seeing our parents as vulnerable helps them as much as it does us, freeing them to be fully human without the pretense of invincibility.

    ALAN, It seems we all have That moment. I'm grateful for mine. Thank you!

    STEVE, And no one mentions his wife, who said she felt the animals were like children to her. She had to see them all killed, plus her husband taking his own life.... wow. That would be a heavy burden of almost unbearable sadness.

  23. Sad that this happened. Hope there's no repeat in the future!

  24. My first reaction to the killing of these animals was...gosh! These people got to participate in a big game hunt...free! I simply didn't understand why they couldn't have been tranquilized. It was a hunt and they enjoyed it... I don't care about Jack Hanna's opinion. It was just wrong...

  25. Gigi, Yes. May it Never be repeated.

    Turquoisemoon, I had a similar reaction around the notion of a free big game hunt. These animals were not even "on the prowl," but milling around.... They were in over their heads with a very poor motive. It sickens me.

  26. It was a tragedy in more than one way. That man was surely not thinking rationally. As for the killing of those animals, I can see both sides of the debate...all the while wishing there could have been another way. There could be more to the story than we know. Or not.

  27. Hi Cheryl, Yes, there always is more to the story and I'm sure in both directions here. A tragedy no matter what....

  28. This was unforgivable from beginning to end.
    I have few words to express what I feel but..
    Man must learn that we are advocates for all animals on this earth... and if we don't accept this responsibility, it is my opinion that another "ark" will be built and, again, we will be the species that is left behind.
    We keep failing miserably.

  29. farmlady, I'm so grateful for your response. We do keep failing miserably and I am concerned for our future on this planet.