Categories: Lion

Did this lioness try and revive the unborn calf of the mother she killed?

A lioness kills an antelope and discovers that she is pregnant. She removes the unborn calf from the dead body of their mother and this is the photograph you see here. One guy believes that the lioness realised she had killed an unborn calf and became disturbed at what she had done, which is why she removed the calf and tried to find ways of reviving it. She wanted to undo what she had done. Do you believe this?

Did this lion try and bring this unborn antelope back to life? Photo: Gerry Van Der Walt and distributed by Caters News Agency Ltd.

He states that although she began to feed on the mother, she stopped because she appeared to have lost her appetite. He believes that the lioness was overcome with grief and ended up lying by the side of the antelope. He also believes that this is a sign of the lioness’s intelligence because it demonstrates remorse, an advanced emotion. So we are down to the big question as to whether cats have advanced emotions and in this instance it all revolves around an unsettling photograph of natural behaviour in the wild.

Lioness sleeps by the side of an antelope she has killed. Photo: Gerry Van Der Walt and distributed by Caters News Agency Ltd.

I’m sure that lionesses have killed pregnant animals before. It must happen. The photographs are by Gerry Van Der Walt and they were distributed by Caters News Agency Ltd.

Discussion on feline emotions

We have to discuss whether cats can feel the emotion of remorse. There should be no difference between domestic and wild cats in this respect. It is a given nowadays that cats feel emotions such as anxiety, contentment and other fundamental emotions. The emotion of remorse is one of regret or guilt for a wrong committed. There is a school of thought which says that in order to feel remorse you have to be self-conscious i.e. aware of your existence as a sentient being. At present people don’t believe that cats are self-aware but this is work in progress.

Within the definition of remorse there is a reference to “a wrong committed”. This would be a moral or legal wrong. So we are into morals which is a difficult area of discussion when your talking about how lions think. Do lions have morals? We don’t know. We don’t think so. They act instinctively but their behaviour goes well beyond simple instinctive behaviour. There are social creatures. The only wild cat species that lives in a group. This must create obligations but they are probably all dictated to by an instinctive desire to survive.

Basic emotions such as anger, fear, happiness et cetera are gut feelings which happen spontaneously. Dr John Bradshaw says that “the most primitive part of the cat’s brain produces these emotions”. He’s an expert and I trust his assessment and in any case all observant cat owners are aware of this.

The more complex emotions such as remorse and jealousy are referred to as “relational emotions” because cats need to have an understanding of the thoughts of animals other than themselves. Dogs and cats don’t appear to be able to understand what other dogs and cats are thinking. Also cats live in the present, not reflecting on the past or looking forward to the future. Dr Bradshaw believes that cats can feel jealous which is a higher emotion but doubts whether they can feel grief. He also doubts whether cats can feel guilt and pride because they require “cognitive sophistication” at a different level. Cats would need to compare their actions with the standards of their society. This requires self-awareness and as mentioned scientists have yet to conclude that cats can be self-aware. The same applies to dogs.

Therefore I have to say I don’t agree with the guy who says that this lion feels remorseful. What do you think? I have to make one more point. We don’t know exactly what happened or how this lioness behaved. We see her with the unborn calf in her mouth. What was she doing? She appears to be confused. There may be an element of uncertainty in her behaviour caused by confusion and she may have recognised the fact that this was an unborn calf. I would suggest that that is likely because of own personal experiences. The uncertainty may have given the impression that she felt remorseful.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

View Comments

  • Cats may live in the moment, but I also believe somewhere deep down, they have the capacity to feel empathetic at some level.

    About a year ago, I was watching a wildlife video of the Masai Mara Refuge that showed a lioness had killed an antelope and was feasting on it. Suddenly, she came upon a live antelope baby that had just been born. She stopped eating, sniffed the baby and started licking it. I thought for sure the baby was next for lunch. Imagine the surprise to see the lioness lick it clean and nudge it to stand. Once it did, the lioness just watched as the antelope walked away to the herd in the distance. Blew my mind away!

    • Yes, I saw that too. There is a competition going on in the head of the lion: to kill or be friends.

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