Charging Lions

From the corral, the calls sounded again and again—loud, deranged by worry, a desperate mother’s cries of distress.

“To the rancher, I wish you could respect the cat a bit more. Your habitats are the same. You could seek extinction together.” 

—Harley Shaw, “Soul Among Lions”

Illustartion by Anna Hall

Night Corral

“Wake up,” Debbie shouted. “I think a lion’s got Dutchess’s calf.”

I bolted awake, sitting up in bed, disoriented. On warm nights, we slept with the windows open, and I heard the shrill bellowing that was Dutchess’ most distinctive characteristic, just as it was her mother’s. When you spend every day for years getting to know any creatures, human or otherwise, you come to know such things: the differences of vocal inflection; calm or skittish or aggressive temperaments; degrees of adventurousness versus maternal instinct; intelligence and guile; the willingness to walk a long way…

From the corral, the calls sounded again and again—loud, deranged by worry, a desperate mother’s cries of distress.

Uninvited Guests

When they first showed up in the spring of 1998, the raccoons were cute, a mother and three young ones that discovered the dry cat food I left on the upstairs porch of the single-room second story we used as a bedroom during the cooler months of the year. I put the cat food out for Ramble, a feral cat who’d been hanging around for a while, sleeping in a tree near our bedroom window. I’d decided to adopt him and was gradually winning him over.

When the raccoons arrived, after dark, they would climb a mesquite tree on the other side of the house, the mother first, followed by a line of three adolescents. They would scratch and skitter across the tin roof and climb down onto the upstairs porch to the cat food dish. Debbie and I would hear them on the roof and creep upstairs, crawling slowly across the wood floor until we crouched below the eastern window. Then we peered out at the four raccoons as they stood around the cat dishes, picking out single kibbles of food and dipping them in the cat’s water bowl before eating. They reminded us of people standing around a tray of chips and dip at a party. Except for the clattering noise they made on the roof at night while we tried to sleep, we didn’t object. They kept coming, their visits growing more and more frequent until they were a nightly occurrence.

Cows Are People, Too

The first year we lived in Cascabel, our ranching mentors, Jim and Pat Corbett, had a saying they taught us—two middle-class, young-20s dropouts from strip-mall society, who showed up, with big dreams and no money, to live in a dirt-road rural community on the San Pedro River in southern Arizona. “Cows are people, too,” they said. It was meant to be a little funny, but not a joke. Jim explained to us his belief that many people act autistic when relating to animals, especially to livestock in production agricultural systems, behaving as though there is no “other” there, no one observing and responding. I had read Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s I and Thou and found Jim’s conceptualization similar but more expansive. Buber believed that healthy relations with the rest of the world come through dialogical engagements: “I” engages with any other creature as a “thou,” who acts and reacts dynamically with “I,” rather than merely being an object “I” manipulates according to his will. Any authentic I-Thou relationship, according to Buber, is also a portal into a relationship with God, the spirit or force that runs through all beings. Jim extended Buber’s language-based philosophy to include all forms of communication, which for humans and cows means mostly body language— subtle angles of approach and gestures learned from watching the cows interact with each other.

Jim was not anyone’s image of a classic Western cowboy: He had a floppy white canvas hat; solid-colored, sweat-stained shirts, partly unbuttoned and hanging loosely over his jeans and gaunt frame; a trimmed gray “Man of La Mancha” goatee; and black Teva sandals because no other shoes fit his feet. His fingers and toes were like claws, curled over one another by rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that bent and gnarled his body but could not touch his ironwood will.

I remember first watching Jim approach cows on the range back when Debbie and I, who had not grown up ranching, still felt cautious about relating to such large and powerful creatures. He would speak softly when he got within hearing distance. He made a soft, guttural sound in greeting and approached from the side, not head-on, because cows’ eyes are on the sides of their heads and they regard a head-on approach as an aggressive challenge that invites a butting of heads. Jim would approach from the side and raise his hand to the cow’s muzzle when he reached her, letting her take in his scent and recognize him. Often, the cows stretched out their necks so he could scratch their dewlaps, the sensitive skin below their necks. He moved among them with ease and obvious pleasure, as though they were his people and he was theirs.

I remember when Jim introduced us to his red and white, half-Jersey milk cow, Red, and showed us how to milk by hand. He used no milking stall, neither rope nor hobbles on Red’s feet to keep her from kicking. He just led us into the pasture where he had a small pen in which he could put Red to exclude other cows. He gave her a bucket of alfalfa pellets, squatted on the ground with a large stainless steel pot to catch the milk and went to it, his twisted hands stroking Red’s teats from the base to the tip, pulling out the milk with pressure applied between his thumb and forefinger, the only way his hands could grasp. He crouched, tilting forward so that his head rested against Red’s udder just in front of her hind leg.

“She has to accept you as one of her calves,” Jim said, without looking up. It was simple and obvious to him.

To us, it was revelatory, and Jim was beautiful. Debbie and I quickly came to love Jim for living out the practices that others might have seen as only disembodied words.

Cows were people—sentient beings in a sentient world. Even good stewardship was not enough. To Jim, stewardship still implied domination, however benign. In northern Louisiana, I had watched my maternal grandfather work cattle by scaring them into a corral or a trailer. They were no more real beings to him than the tractors he rode—just obstinate, frustrating tools that resisted his will. I observed the same thing when helping to vaccinate a few hundred cattle on a more mainstream ranch in Cascabel in exchange for pregnancy-checking lessons.

I believe Jim had it right. Much of the nightmare of animal factory-farming stems from a systematic refusal to treat animals like feeling, thinking creatures, a refusal essential to the system’s continuation. To find sentience in them would make clear what battery cages and jam-packed feedlots really are: sites of carefully organized mass enslavement. I objected not to ranching itself, nor even to the slaughter, but to the process of subjection: the subjection of land, of animals and of the people who came up from Mexico to work long hours as hirelings building fence or bullying cattle, not only alienated from the products of their labor but also cut off from membership in the greater community.

Jim replaced subjection with what he called “land redemption” and the “symbiotic integration” of humans into the desert ecosystem. The cow became both companion and source of nutrition. Desert bunch grasses and forbs could not directly become part of human tissues. Intermediating between us and the desert, cows were alchemists transmuting grasses and forbs into milk and meat, and the alienated man and woman into participants in a vast communion.

Melon Thieves

For a few months, the raccoon family seemed happy with cat food, and I decided it wasn’t a bad trade in exchange for keeping the hens alive. Since Ramble usually left quite a bit of food in his bowl at night, I decreased the amount I put out each morning so that Ramble ate most of it during the day and only a little remained for the raccoons to clean up at night. But one night in early summer, they took a chicken anyway. A few weeks later, they took another. The second time, Debbie and I rushed outside when we heard the chicken’s death squawk—an eerie, sharp cry that sounds like no other noise chickens make. We got there in time to see two of the younger raccoons, not yet full grown, escaping into the mesquite bosque. One of them clutched a red hen in its mouth.

In April, we planted cantaloupes and watermelons in two of our sunken bed gardens. By July, the plants were fruiting, and we watched the small melons grow with great anticipation. Cool, sweet melon slices from the refrigerator were a favorite summer snack after hours spent working in the grueling heat. We harvested one cantaloupe too soon, paying for our impatience by eating it even though it wasn’t much sweeter than a cucumber. So we waited and let them ripen.

One morning, Debbie walked into the kitchen, holding a small, dark green watermelon. It was perfect, except that a large hole had been gnawed into it and small ants swarmed in the hole.

“Hurry up and look before the ants get all over my hands,” Debbie said with a frustrated grimace. “There’s another one outside just like it.”

A few nights later, I spied one of the young raccoons as it slipped into the melon patch, and I charged out the door, yelling as the raccoon ran away, though it had already ruined another melon.

Early Lessons in Livestock Husbandry

Our practice with heifers, young cows that have never delivered a calf, was to corral them so we could check on them throughout the day and night as they got close to calving. It was the way Saguaro Juniper Corporation, the collectively owned ranch and integrative living project that Jim cofounded, approached everything, placing ultimate value on the welfare of the animals and the land, however labor-intensive the methods.

Calving problems could occur with any animal, but heifers experienced them by far the most frequently. We’d learned this the hard way. In 1997, during our first year tending cattle, we lost the first calf we delivered. It had one front leg curled under it, and we couldn’t get the other one out before the calf suffocated in the birth canal. Following Jim’s instructions after a short, urgent phone call, I stuck my hand inside the heifer to try to unfold the leg. I could not. The following year, the mother, named Henna for the dark red highlights in her mostly black hair, came up infertile. She would come into heat, be bred and then come into heat again several weeks later. Vibriosis, an infectious bacterial disease that causes spontaneous abortion and infertility, was the likeliest cause, but I always wondered whether I’d done something wrong or whether the calf’s twisted body itself injured something inside her. She was one of the first three animals we’d bought from Jim and Pat and raised to maturity. She was gentle and trusting and loaded easily into the trailer to be taken to slaughter.

Naked in the Numinous World I

When Dutchess started bawling, it was 2 a.m. on a hot, humid night in late August 2000. The cries came from the barbed-wire corral 25 yards from our back door. Dutchess was there because she’d had her first calf a few days earlier. Mother Poll, our oldest cow, was in the corral to keep Dutchess company. The fact that Mother Poll had also sounded the alarm, woke up Debbie and assured her that the threat was immediate and very real.

When she woke me, Debbie had already been outside. She stood over me, holding a flashlight and urging me to hurry. I’d slept in only a T-shirt and started grasping around for the jeans I’d taken off earlier.

“There’s no time for that. The lion’s got the calf now,” Debbie said.

I stopped looking for my jeans and put on the sandals I kept by the bed in case of an emergency.

“How do you know?”

“Something was thrashing around in the graythorn outside the corral. What else could it be?”

My sandals were buckled, and we raced outside. Debbie pointed the flashlight beam toward a clump of graythorn in the mesquite bosque on the south side of the corral. But nothing moved. We walked quickly but cautiously toward the spot where Debbie thought she’d seen something. Nothing again. It was dark, a night with little moonlight, and a quick search of the area around the graythorn clump revealed no clues. There was no calf, no blood and no lion. Dutchess and Mother Poll still stood bawling and staring out into the black mesquite woodland, and Dutchess’ calf was gone. Perhaps I should have gone inside then to throw on more clothes and grab the shotgun.

Instead, we kept looking.

Hiring a Hit Man

“I don’t like to eat anyone I haven’t known,” Jim would say with a grin when asked to summarize his views on meat-eating. From our long conversations, I knew the age-old pastoralist’s dilemma still troubled him, as it troubled me and Debbie: How do you kill and eat creatures you’ve raised and cared for? I’d heard the story about Jim and Pat deciding to put down the longtime S-J herd bull. Chris had been in the herd for eight or nine years. As he’d aged, he’d grown unpredictable: hard to find and move on the range without endangering the herders, and not always staying close enough to the cows to detect their heats and keep them bred. He’d been brought to Jim and Pat’s pasture for the solemn occasion.

Jim wanted to do the killing himself and then participate in the butchering. Chris lowered his huge black head into a black rubber bucket full of alfalfa pellets. As he ate, Jim stood twenty feet away, steeled himself and raised his .22 rifle, the only gun he and Pat owned. Jim took careful aim at the point on the head where one shot is supposed to drop even a bull. If you drew a line from each eye to the opposite ear, the two lines would intersect at the spot. Jim fired.

His aim was close, but the bullet struck Chris’ thick skull only hard enough to sting and draw blood. Chris stamped and shook his head back and forth, as if bitten by a horsefly. Then he dipped his head again and continued eating. Jim stood there, visibly shaking. After a long moment, he turned and asked Charlie Thomas, an S-J member and Vietnam vet turned pacifist, to drive several miles back to his house and bring back a high-powered rifle. Jim and the small group of people who’d come to help with the slaughter stood around, shocked and waiting, until Charlie returned.

When the killing was done, Jim, Charlie and the others labored the rest of the day to skin and disembowel the carcass, divide it into manageable pieces and wrap them in freezer paper. This was one of the stories that deepened my admiration for Jim even further. He did not waver from his principles, however painful they were to carry out. I viewed Chris’ slaughter as a bloody but profound ceremony of responsibility and thanksgiving.

Saguaro Juniper rejected entirely the agribusiness model of farming and ranching as an extractive industry, with cows as little bioreactors concentrating range plants into protein, and protein into concentrated wealth. I admired Jim’s refusal to become calloused about slaughter. It wasn’t supposed to be easy. He called buying meat from the store “hiring a hit man.”

To See by Flashlight, Darkly

While Debbie and I searched the outer perimeter of the corral in widening circles, the night erupted again in bellows and dust. The rest of the cattle responded to Dutchess’ distress cries by charging in from parts unknown, snorting and calling, with the calves kicking up their heels in excitement. For ten minutes or so, there was no point in looking further. We could hear nothing but cow sounds, and their commotion raised a thick cloud of dust that hung between the mesquite trees, further limiting visibility.

“Any lion that was here is probably long gone,” I said, discouraged.

“Yeah, but where’s the calf?” Debbie answered. “Did the lion really drag it that fast?”

We stood watching as the cattle milled around the corral for a while and then began trickling back down a cattle trail that wound through a few hundred acres of bosque to the south, where they were eating the newly fallen mesquite bean crop.

“Nothing to see here,” I said as they headed out. But Dutchess, panicked and distraught, kept pacing the edge of the corral, calling for her calf.

Maybe twenty minutes had elapsed since we’d left the house. After the herd left camp, the night’s quiet was punctuated only by Dutchess, her calls less frequent now as they got no answer.

And then they did.

From somewhere far out in the mesquites came a bleating sound, the calf answering its mother. Once, twice, then no more. I grabbed the flashlight from Debbie’s hand and took off running, still naked except for my sandals and maroon T-shirt.

Living a latter-day homesteader’s life in Cascabel, I often contemplated the dilemma of being what deep ecologist and philosopher Paul Shepard called “the tender carnivore,” one who both cares for and preys upon domestic animals. In addition to taking solace in Jim’s philosophy of symbiosis, I sometimes took Barry Lopez’s book Arctic Dreams from the shelf to find solace in this passage:

No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life; when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture, but within oneself…There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making  your life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.

Worthy or not, I was often given opportunities to confront the paradoxes inherent in my relationships with animals. I leaned into and out of the light, my questioning mind dappled by the contradictions of trying to live on and take sustenance from the desert. Debbie and I lived as both guardians and executioners, sometimes on the same day.

Naked in the Numinous World II

Given the thickness of the thorn-scrub understory beneath the mesquites, my run soon slowed to a creep with intermittent pauses to listen for the calf. Debbie had stayed behind. I’m not sure how far away from her I was, but I could not see her. After a few minutes of walking and stopping, I heard it again, a muffled “mmmmhh.” It wasn’t far away. I quickened my pace, moving toward the sound. Moments later, I came around a graythorn bush, and my flashlight’s beam caught the lion full in the face, its eyes glowing gold in the light. I was far too close.

The lion stood no more than thirty feet away, facing me. It held its head closer to the ground than its shoulders, crouching over its prey. Just beneath the lion’s head lay the calf, its throat almost touching the lion’s lower jaw. My adrenaline surged with the fear in my throat. Too close, too close. The thought kept ringing in my head.

From the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife Web site:

• When you walk or hike in mountain lion country, go in groups and make plenty of noise to reduce your chances of surprising a lion. A sturdy walking stick is a good idea; it can be used to ward off a lion.

• Do not approach a lion, especially one that is feeding or with kittens. Most mountain lions will try to avoid a confrontation.

• Stay calm when you come upon a lion. Talk calmly yet firmly to it. Move slowly.

• Stop or back away slowly, if you can do it safely. Running may stimulate a lion’s instinct to chase and attack. Face the lion and stand upright.

• Do all you can to appear larger. Raise your arms. Open your jacket if you’re wearing one.

I had read most of this before. But I had no shotgun or even a walking stick this time. Not only was I not wearing a jacket, I wasn’t wearing pants or boxers. I’d assumed that the lion was already far away, scared off by us and the arriving herd. I had already both surprised and approached a feeding lion. In fact, I was blatantly challenging it for its prey. I knew well that my mistake might be fatal, but I didn’t have time to contemplate being such a moron. I had to act.

I started screaming, my voice growing louder and louder. Visceral, terrified, furious screaming. I flailed my arms at the graythorn and mesquite branches near me, tearing off small mesquite branches and flinging them at the lion, the thorns leaving scratches up and down my arms, though I didn’t feel them. I stamped my feet on the ground, my body surging with the flood of adrenaline and fear of imminent death.

From a couple of hundred yards away, maybe less, Debbie heard what she described as my bloodcurdling screams. She knew there was only one possible cause. She started running.

My eyes never left the lion, and at first, the lion remained still, with its eyes on me. I don’t know how long it was—maybe not more than a minute. The lion crouched there, sizing me up, a moment of pure encounter between two predators, only one of them capable of killing the other, a reversal of my accustomed role.

“Go,” I screamed, the only word I said amid mostly wordless screaming. But the lion did not move. And then it did. It pivoted and moved, rippling thirty feet across the clearing, as if molten platinum flowed beneath its skin. I thought it was leaving. Maybe it was, but then some other thought, possibly lethal, crossed the lion’s mind. It turned and faced me again. I knew what that meant. I charged.

My approach lasted maybe twenty seconds or less, and “charging” may not really be the best description. I stepped toward the lion, not fast but slow and steady, raising my knees high and pounding my legs to the ground, my arms raised above my head, my panicked heart thundering my ribcage. And like a phantom, the lion turned and slid, faster than my flashlight could track him, back into the hanging darkness: a flicker of tail and then gone. 

I stood gasping, staring into the blackness where the lion had vanished. I heard Debbie calling out and gathered my wits enough to answer. Debbie reached me seconds later.

“Oh, my god,” she said. “You’re all right.”

“The lion was right here,” I said.

“I figured that out. I thought it had you.”

“Almost did,” I said. A few seconds passed, but I didn’t say more, still struggling to recover my equilibrium.

“Is the calf dead?”

“Don’t know. Probably.”

We walked over to the prostrate calf. Debbie took the light from my hand and knelt beside it, scanning the flashlight beam up and down its body. The calf had not been disemboweled or bitten at all. There were teeth marks in its neck, but they hadn’t gone deep. Its breath came so shallow that Debbie had to put her hand over the calf’s nose to tell if it was breathing at all.

“He’s alive,” she said.

I knelt, too, and placed my own hand where Debbie’s had been, in wonder, just to make sure. After a long moment, we rose to our feet, me with the calf in my arms, both of us in shock. I carried it back to the corral with Debbie leading the way by flashlight. It did not squirm, and I wondered whether it might have received some less perceptible mortal wound.

In the morning, the calf’s throat was swollen, so we gave it a shot of penicillin against infection. For months, you could look close and see a few small scars where the lion’s teeth had marked it. Eighteen months later, the calf I’d saved from a lion went to slaughter. We shared the meat with our friends.

Learning How to Die

If you move into a very wild area as we did, and you put chickens and calves where they weren’t before, you usually get a short grace period before the predators arrive. Then, at some point, you get on the food map, and they just keep coming. One half-dark morning, I saw a coyote snap a white hen right out of the air as she fluttered up toward a fence rail, trying to escape. We learned how much raccoons like chicken by losing a few, so we reinforced the bottoms of the pens with an extra layer of chicken wire.

Daily chores included refilling any small holes that ambitious coyotes dug into the soil around the pens and restapling chicken wire to posts where nimble raccoon hands had tugged it loose. Usually, the little forays were unsuccessful. Occasionally, a chicken got snatched, and then the attacks became more frequent for a while. They decreased again if we did a good job with fortifications. From time to time, Debbie and I would discuss how the raccoons and coyotes were after the same thing we were so we couldn’t really blame them for trying.

I didn’t blame the lion for its sharp reminder that most of the world remains beyond our corrals, that even our most intentional relationships exist within vast open systems that cannot be entirely predicted or controlled. In those moments when the lion and I stood facing each other, with the calf between us, I felt the animal vulnerability and primal terror of being torn open and apart, of being consumed—and the fear pulsing through my body was the kind that complicates the idea of communion through eating.

I survived—or, at least, saved the calf—by bluffing, by pretending to be a creature with physical powers I did not possess—my last adaptive card laid on the table. Had the lion leapt toward me and my struggle been futile, I hope there would have come a moment of acquiescence when I, like the calf, no longer resisted, acknowledging an unforeseen twist in the cosmos, dualities collapsing, “I” becoming “thou,” self, other, our bodies the truest offerings we have to make.

With the raccoons, I failed my own principles. I let myself blame them for taking more than I wanted them to have, though they could not have understood my limits. To keep the raccoons from eating our melons, we tried covering the plants with sheets weighted down with rocks. The raccoons got under them. Though the yard was already fenced and the chain link kept deer out of the garden, we began to consider whether we needed to set up internal electric fencing around the melon beds, an unsightly and expensive proposition. Then they took another chicken. It became clear that the four of them had come to regard our yard as one-stop shopping, a raccoon quick-mart. We got angrier at them every day. When there was one intact watermelon left in the bed, I made a decision to try something more drastic.

“As long as you do it,” Debbie said, but I could tell she didn’t like it from the way she looked at me and pressed her lips together.

“What else are we supposed to do?”

“I don’t know. I think I’d rather just not grow melons.”

I said nothing. This was not an answer I was willing to hear.

When two of the young raccoons reached the yard two nights later, I burst through the back door and chased them around the house and across the driveway. One of them leapt onto the fence, topped it, dropped to the other side and kept going. The other one climbed a mesquite tree in front of the tack shed by the gate. It sat on a branch, peering down at me. I raised the shotgun, loaded with buckshot, intending to kill. I stood looking along the barrel at the young raccoon for a very long moment. Some part of me knew what was coming. I’d been the boy who’d asked for a BB gun because his friends had them, only to give weepy burials to a few feathered victims before putting the gun away.

When I fired, the raccoon dropped from a low mesquite branch onto the ground and crawled toward the fence, making it ten or twelve feet before going still. I walked toward it. Blood poured out of its head, its entire lower jaw blown off by the exploding shell. I stood over it as it died, feeling cold, sick and helpless. I recalled watching them play and eat on the upstairs porch. They had gotten used to us watching through the window pretty fast. If we made no quick movements, they went about their business undisturbed.

It was the work and care that gave us first right to the fruits of our labors, I told myself, wondering all along if there was any such right to be had. I never told Jim and Pat about the raccoon. In Cascabel, I killed and ate rattlesnakes that took up residence in a corral or near my doorstep. I shot at a trespassing, lion-hunting hound with no second thought, preferring the lion in its place to the dog out of bounds. I slaughtered chickens. I shot cows I loved that were suffering and could not be cured. If I’d had a gun, would I have fired at the lion, as well? The image of the young raccoon falling from the tree, its last heaving strides toward impossible freedom, has never left me.

About the Author

Chester F. Phillips

Chester F. Phillips has worked as a rancher, fire lookout, delivery driver, Montessori assistant teacher, rainwater harvester, research assistant, environmental conflict-resolution intern and freshman English instructor, among other things. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D.

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One thought on “Charging Lions

  1. Very powerful. Provokes a necessary discomfort with the distance I allow myself between how I think of myself (humane, aware) and the way I eat.

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