Have you ever wanted to own a pet? How about a lion?
February of 1950
IT was a beautiful day in early February, deep in Kenya on the African continent. The dry, endless wilderness went on for as far as the eye could see as George Adamson, game warden in the Northern District of Kenya, made his way through the deep bush. This gentle man loved his job as a game warden deep in the Kenyan wilds. He spent his days patrolling the bush , massive swaths of wild, uncultivated land, protecting wildlife and animals from illegal hunting and poaching (stealing wild animals illegally), and fulfilling his duties as a conservation officer. George loved nature and animals and was deeply familiar with the vast territory in the remote African wilderness for which he was responsible.
But on this beautiful, sunny morning, George was in for a surprise.
George found three tiny lion cubs in a small, rocky crevice not far away. Experienced and knowledgeable, George could see that the cubs were just a few days old. Their eyes were still shut; lion cubs don’t open their eyes for the first time until they’re about a week old. George knelt down again, and with slow, careful movements, scooped the three warm little cubs into his arms. They nuzzled their noses into him and whimpered again, and George cradled them close. Bereft of their mother, the little lions would be unable to survive. Lion cubs are completely dependent on their mothers; they can only begin hunting on their own when they are about one year old. George resolutely headed for his Land Rover, and using an old blanket, fashioned a small nest in the back seat. He tucked the little lions in and drove off.
Wearing his army-green uniform, George brushed some dry, tall grass out of his way and was startled to hear a low growl. George looked toward the miles of deep brush, camouflaging everything and anything inside it, and his hand quietly traveled to his rifle. As profoundly as he respected the animals of this breathtaking land, he also wanted to return home alive and well to his wife, Joy. When the massive female lion burst out of the brush, furiously lunging at George, he didn’t hesitate. Three shots rang out and the lion fell back. George stood in place, motionless. He knelt down by the lion’s body, knowing he’d saved his own life, but deeply pained by the loss of the magnificent beast before him. Then George heard whimpering from the brush and he froze in understanding.
When Joy Adamson heard the Land Rover pull up and stepped out of their little house to welcome her husband home, she was not prepared for the sight that met her eyes. Her husband exited the small vehicle with three tiny, fuzzy cats, which, upon closer inspection, looked suspiciously like lion cubs.
“Hi there, Joy,” George greeted his wife. She smiled back uncertainly.
“Had to shoot their mamma when she charged me from the brush,” George said, sadness lacing his words. “Otherwise I’d have been her lunch.” He shrugged. “Couldn’t leave these fellas alone to starve.”
Joy stepped closer. The little lions were really so small and helpless. She felt herself reaching out to take the littlest one, which she held against her neck. The little lion nestled into her shoulder cozily, and Joy and George walked into the house together.
The next few months were challenging. George and Joy devoted themselves to raising the little cubs, and the lions flourished. When they were six months old, the two bigger lions were sent to a European zoo. But they kept the littlest one, the one Joy had picked up on that very first day. They named her Elsa.
In many ways, Elsa lived in the Adamson home like a pet kitten. She was intelligent and trusting, and Joy was definitely her favorite. Elsa would cuddle up to Joy just like a little cat. But Joy knew that Elsa couldn’t be happy in their home forever. For as much as Joy had grown to love the cub, she knew that Elsa belonged in the wild.
Returning to the Wild
“I don’t want to send her to a zoo,” Joy confided to George. “I want to teach her to manage in the wild.” George agreed, and when Elsa was a little older, they set out, determined to teach her how to hunt and live in the wild. They had never heard of anyone else who had attempted this kind of project before, but their hard work paid off. The Adamsons encouraged Elsa to develop her instincts to hunt. In the beginning it was difficult for Elsa, and she repeatedly returned to the Land Rover where Joy and George were waiting for her.
By the time she was three years old (which is considered an adult for a lion), she weighed 300 pounds. She’d clamber up to the Rover’s reinforced roof for the ride home, and when George and Joy reentered the vehicle, they had to gently move her paws away from the doors so that she wouldn’t be hurt when the doors were slammed shut.
At home, Elsa would try to play with Joy, and would enthusiastically tackle Joy and pin her down — all 300 pounds of her. She’d lick Joy in obvious affection as Joy begged Elsa to get off of her. It was clear that Elsa’s education needed to continue. She needed to learn to live alone in the wild.
Joy and George continued to train Elsa. Eventually, Elsa started staying away for several days at a time, and then for longer stretches, before she’d reappear to say hello.
Even after months went by, Elsa was delighted every time the Adamsons found her. She demonstrated pleasure and trust whenever she saw them, hugging them with her paws draped around their shoulders. Slowly, the stretches of time between visits grew, and Joy and George saw less and less of Elsa.
One day, in a clearing by a stream in the Kora Reserve, Elsa found the Adamsons and their Land Rover. This time she had something to show them. She proudly introduced her new cubs, her own three little lions, born in the wild. Joy and George gave Elsa’s cubs names. Although mother lions are very protective over their cubs, Elsa showed extreme trust with the Adamsons.
Joy and George continued to keep tabs on Elsa and her cubs. But when Elsa was five years old, the prime of life for a lion, she became sick with a disease called babesiosis, which is caused by a tick bite from an infected tick. It’s a common disease in the cat family (lions are part of the cat family). Elsa grew weak and lethargic and it was hard for her to move. She died with her head in George’s lap in Meru National Park. George and a friend buried Elsa and marked her grave.
The Adamsons were greatly saddened by the loss of their special friend. Joy Adamson wrote three books chronicling their experiences with Elsa. Years later, George wrote two books of his own.
Elsa became world-famous and motivated many people to protect wildlife, instead of allowing them to be illegally and cruelly hunted. George, for his part, spent many more years among the lions, earning the trust, affection, and love of several other lion friends, who, like Elsa, rode on the Land Rover and enjoyed spending time with George. Joy, too, continued working with animals. A cheetah cub, who had been raised as a pet, was given to Joy in the hopes that she could be released into the wild like Elsa had been. Joy worked extensively with Pippa the cheetah, and successfully integrated Pippa back into the wild. She wrote a book about that experience as well.
Joy raised a leopard cub, too. One of the other rangers, with whom George was acquainted, found an orphaned African leopard cub and gave her to Joy. They named the cub Penny, and Joy raised and then released the leopard successfully, which led to yet another book.
Lions in Tanach
King Daryavesh was a great and mighty king with 120 advisors. He ruled over Paras and Madai with a great and mighty hand, and he had one special, favorite advisor: Daniel.
The king had appointed Daniel, along with two other advisors, as officers over the 120 advisers, for the king loved Daniel and found himself continuously dazzled by Daniel’s brilliance and beautiful character.
But alas, the other advisors were not pleased to observe how Daniel was clearly King Daryavesh’s favorite. “King’s pet,” they snarled to each other. And they plotted and schemed for ways to get rid of him.
First they searched for misconduct; a popular way (to this very day) to fell important politicians. They wanted to see where Daniel was lying and cheating and bribing his way into the king’s heart. But as hard as they searched and as much as they tried, they could not find charges of misconduct to hold against Daniel. He was loyal, brave, exceptionally clever, and the king loved him dearly. The other advisors could not stand it.
Seeing as they could not find any flaws, they zeroed in on the fact that Daniel was a Jew. But because the king loved Daniel, they knew he would try to protect him. So they came up with a plan.
The advisors arranged a meeting with the king. “We propose a new law,” one of the advisors intoned on behalf of them all. “According to our proposed law, people will be forbidden to pray to any power or man other than the king himself.”
King Daryavesh nodded happily.
“And the punishment,” the advisor continued, “for praying to one other than the King himself, will be to be thrown into the lion’s lair!”
And so it was.
Daniel heard about the new law and he understood what the advisors were trying to do. He continued davening three times day, bowing and serving Hashem, the King of Kings. And he left the windows of his house wide open as he did so. It was not hard for the gleeful advisors to catch Daniel praying. They promptly headed off to the king.
“Oh, Mighty King Daryavesh!” they cried. “Have you not made a law that one may not pray to any power or man other than the king himself?”
“Indeed I have, by the law of Paras and Madai!”
“Well, Mighty King,” they said, “Daniel, your trusted advisor, has disregarded your law. Every day, three times a day, Daniel prays to his G-d.”
King Daryavesh was horrified; not that Daniel was praying, but that the advisors had schemed to rid themselves of the king’s most beloved advisor. He tried to find loopholes in the law and even tried to have the law changed to save Daniel.
“O mighty king!” cried the advisors. “Any law of the kings of Paras and Madai may not be changed!”
When evening arrived and Daniel stood to pray the evening prayers, the king realized there was no choice. “Throw him to the lions,” the king said sadly. Daniel was thrown into a deep ravine where many lions roamed. King Daryavesh called to Daniel, “Pray, pray to your G-d. He will surely save you!” Then the king left. He did not want to see what would happen to Daniel. He hurried to his private palace quarters, but couldn’t sleep nor eat. Daniel was left alone in the setting sun, a sole figure in the deep ravine, with hundreds of lions.
Before the sun even rose on the following morning, King Daryavesh rushed to the edge of the ravine. “Daniel, servant of Hashem! Was your G-d, to whom you always prayed, able to save you from the lions?”
And a voice responded from within the deep ravine. “Long live the king! Hashem has sent angels to close the mouths of the lions. I have not been harmed! For I have been innocent before Him, and before you, the king; I have done no wrong.”
King Daryavesh ordered that Daniel be lifted from the ravine. Indeed, Daniel was untouched. The other advisors sneered. “The lions were not hungry,” they said. “It is no miracle.” In anger, the king cried, “Let the advisors who wanted to harm my servant be thrown to these satiated lions! They, along with their wives and children! Let us see how satiated the lions are.”
The advisors had not even been fully lowered into the pit when the lions pounced on their prey. It did not take long for the lions to take care of the evil advisors once and for all.
Because Hashem is the One Who controls lions, after all.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 925)
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