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The Lion Tamer’s Story

I never buy the New York tabloids because they bore me, but I love those trashy headlines. I catch up with them over someone’s shoulder, in line at the checkout or as today, from the high vantage of an old-fashioned barber chair where I am getting the best haircut of my entire life. Harry, the barber, learned to cut in Rumania in 1937. He holds a pair of cadmium red scissors which could be a toy except for the edge and the way he uses them. His hands, as broad as long, work deftly: Snick-snick, Snick Snick Snick, and the hair falls away in small spiral shards. While he works he hums, and I can see that I will be here for a while.

The shop must be as old as Harry. It hasn’t had a coat of paint in at least twenty years and there is not much to hold the eye. On the side table is yesterday’s Daily News, out of reach but angled just enough for me to see the front page:

Central Park Coyote Evades Capture.
Police urge – keep pets inside!

Pets? Inside? The “predator” in question is by definition beyond the limit of its range which means it is young lost scared and unlikely to weigh more than thirty pounds. Anything to sell copy. You’d think they were talking about Godzilla.

This was in fact only the second coyote ever to make his way to the overused grounds of Frederick Law Olmstead’s masterwork, but I did not know about that. When the first one was captured and jailed (life in the local zoo) I was in Africa, with Lionel Reynolds.

We were out, on foot, among wild elephants. Lionel in his worn Kaki’s and his broad-brimmed cap carried a .458 Lott and turned his back to us (as if we would not notice) when he loaded it. Otherwise he made little of the danger except to whisper when elephants were near and though it was dangerous, and we knew it, we felt no fear. Lionel was the kind of man whose presence instilled calm; It was not necessary to know him in order to trust him. What I’ve learned about him since further proves the point.

Some time before we met Lionel was off in the Land Rover with guests and Brenda, his wife of thirty years. Brenda was doing the driving and near Makalolo she spotted vultures in the air. Contrary to the wisdom of countless adventures of Tarzan this does not mean that something is about to die. The victim is dead already, a kill, with lions on it. The vultures don’t land until the lions have had their fill, not unless they want their wings ripped off (which they do not) so they circle, and wait.

Everyone in the truck stayed with Lionel while Brenda set off on foot to find the lions, making her way through the high, dry, brush. She was almost at the kill when she saw the lion and this only because he sat up. Full, sleepy, only vaguely guarding what was left of a very dead zebra he was probably not much of a threat, just then. That said, this is exactly the way people get themselves into trouble with lions, not seeing the lion for the lion-colored grass. From which derives the First Law of Humans and Lions: No Surprises.

Lions generally do not want to tangle with the likes of us. They’ve learned the hard way that this is a bad idea and they can be remarkably forbearing so long as you stand still and stay calm. If you are still, and calm, they tend to remember your humanness and will leave you alone even if they grumble about it. But Brenda had already violated the First Law. She knew she was in trouble and it was probably this, despite the several decades of inculcation by Lionel, that made her forget the Second Law. Have you ever experienced the open-clawed exuberance of a house cat too involved in play? Now multiply that by 400 pounds and you know what I’m talking about. The Second Law of Humans and Lions is: Never Run.

Brenda was going flat out and still a good hundred yards from the Land Rover and Lionel could see she wasn’t going to make it, and now he was running too toward the narrowing space separating Brenda and the lion. Sometime between the beginning of that sprint and the end he must have thought about that .458 Lot. Maybe he was afraid the rifle’s weight would slow him down. Or maybe he was afraid to take the shot with his wife so dangerously close to the target. Or maybe he wasn’t thinking at all because when Lionel met that lion all he had with him was his bare hands and his cap. Shouting and leaping and waving his arms like a lunatic he began whacking that lion across the nose with the bill of that cap. And the lion slammed on the brakes, and ran away.

It is true that people sometimes die violent, scary deaths in the wilderness or from what lives there in the wild. Your greatest enemy of course is exposure – snow, wind, rain (or the lack of it). And yes, as the Bible says, some are torn by wild beasts. But consider the numbers: In the United States every year over a million people are bitten by domestic dogs. 800,000 require medical attention of which 350,000 end up in the emergency room. Most of them are children. Some of them die.

Death by Dog Bite: Once a month.

Despite which most of us have no fear of dogs. Now sharks, that’s another story. Most of us are very much afraid of sharks.

Death by Shark bite: Once every four years.

Death by Lightning: Once a day.

Death by Neighbor’s Gun: 77 people every day of every year, and climbing.

The risk I am thinking about just now has nothing to do with Nature or with guns. Harry is sharpening his straight razor. He lathers the back of my neck and below the sideburns. Undoubtedly after all this time he knows what he’s doing unless (and I can’t help worrying about this), how steady are those hands at 83? I start to suggest that maybe I might skip the trim – and the razor bites the work.

It was cholesterol that eventually got Lionel, not elephants or lions, or coyotes. Think about that next time you reach for the butter. As for me, the haircut is over and I still have my ears.

Death by razor at Harry’s Barber Shop: 0

The coyote, that’s another story. Canids do not do well with stress, and capture, transport, confinement are all stressful. Under these conditions animals tend to overheat and much like us, heat stroke will kill them. If the handlers had been more knowledgeable the coyote would still be alive. Or maybe not. The initial error was perhaps in who was threatening whom.

Hair perfect, Harry waving from the doorway, I find new spring in my step as I hurry for the train, toward the salt marsh and home. The pavement is hard and unyielding, the cabs careening down Park Avenue two and three abreast and no intention of slowing down, the traffic light mere suggestion. Shadows lurk in alleyways. Rats skitter in the gutters. Helicopters sputter directly overhead from East River to Hudson and all these terrors I brave without thinking.

MARK SETH LENDER’s Salt Marsh Diary is a regular feature of “Living on Earth” (nationally syndicated on NPR). His nature photography and writing can be seen at www.SaltMarshDiary.com.

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