This is really a love story because it is so intimate and so loving that it is difficult to describe it as anything else. It is ‘father and daughter’ and as far removed from backyard pet lions as it is possible to be. The story takes place in Botswana on the African continent. The lioness is Sirga. The human is Valentin Gruener.
Valentin, at the age of 25, was busying himself building his conservation business in Botswana. He had recently moved from Germany. A local farmer, Willie De Graaf, was continually shooting wild animals who preyed upon his livestock. He got tired of it (thank God!). He decided to capture them instead and Sirga was the offspring of one such lion. She had been abandoned by her mother because other lions had killed her siblings.
It seems that Valentin adopted Sirga from Willie. When Valentin and Sirga met, in 2012, she was a little over 4-weeks-of-age, severely dehydrated and weighed just four pounds. Valentin nursed her back to health.
At the outset he didn’t want her to be domesticated but to raise her in the wild so that she was as wild as possible and living as natural a life as possible. When he started to take care of her she was about 10 days old. He slept outside with her for a full eight months before she started to sleep alone.
“I never wanted her to get used to being inside a house.” Valentin said.
After 3 years, his “daughter” is a boisterous pet cat of sorts and certainly not a conventional cat companion. But the connection between the two is very much one of companion cat and human guardian. Sirga greets her “dad” in the morning with a big, paws-round-the-shoulders bear hug. The pair walk together, in the wild, almost daily. Sometimes they walk for 9 hours. During walks she learns to hunt. She occasionally meets a cheetah or an antelope. Together, Valentin describes them a small pride of lions! .
It is interesting that Valentin says that he is trying to teach her to be kind to pray. This is an unusual emotion for a lion. Just like a domestic cat, Sirga likes to play with prey. She likes to keep her prey alive for the fun of it and we see this in domestic cat behaviour.
“it was an amazing experience raising Sirga, but also a lot more work than I would have ever imagined. I have spent a huge amount of time with her, simply because she still has no other Lions to interact with and her only enrichment is the walking.”
He says that lions don’t like hot weather (!) and therefore they lie around under trees together in the shade. They play together just like any typical domestic cat would with her caretaker. He scratches her chin and pulls her tail.
Valentin says that Sirga is always friendly and happy and that she has her own special personality but sometimes she plays too rough. When she hunts she becomes a wild cat in an instant. Once again we can recognise what he says in our relationships with our domestic cat.
Valentin says that he is respectful of her strength and power but never frightened of her. She has never been aggressive towards him. One downside of this relationship is that Sirga has not learned to be fearful of humans, which means she will always be, if you like, semi-domesticated and live in partial captivity. She could easily end up being shot by a person who did not know her background.
At the moment, Valentin is in discussion with Willie to fence in 500 hectares on Willie’s land to create a super-large enclosure for Sirga, who he hopes one day will meet a male companion who could live with her there.
If this happens he is unsure how it will affect his relationship with her. How will the male lion react to him hugging Sirga? He’ll meet that bridge when it arrives.