Lessons from Safari: Cats as Learners
We are back from the “Drawing the Big Cats” safari experience, and there is an awful lot to assimilate from what we saw and lived during those action-packed days in Botswana’s wilderness. Every safari is different from any other, and it always gives you something different from what you were expecting. Among the things this safari has yielded which I did not dare to expect was a lot of quality time with big cat families, especially with the most elusive of them all -the leopard. We look at the big cats as predators, and thus we want to see them hunt, but this predatory fixation may make us forget the real complexity of felid psychology. We like to talk of the cats (past and present) as “the ultimate killing machines”, but machines they are not. What they are is, just like us, natural born LEARNERS. Cat species are the result of millions of years of evolution, but each individual cat is the result of a long period of dependence, spent learning from its mother. I count myself fortunate to have watched a leopard killing its prey, but I tell you until you watch a leopard mother playing with its cubs you don’t have an idea what it means to be a big cat. I have to admit that I have not paid enough attention to that aspect of cat behavior in my reconstructions of sabertooths, which is all the worse when you consider that there is a fascinating fossil record of the development of cubs in several sabertooth species. More importantly, that record shows us that given the rate and timing of tooth eruption, sabertooth cubs would have dependend on their mothers for food for a very long period of time, long even for a carnivore. Sabertooths were efficient predators sure enough, but just as surely we can say something else: female sabertooths were especially patient mothers. All kittens are a handful, but imagine having one or several growing sabertooths under your care for more than two years… that must have been a motherhood test!
Here are a few pictures (taken by my son Miguel) of some of the big cat families we met in our trip. First, a very succesful cheetah mother who had reared 3 cubs to full adult size (the mother is the one wearing the collar)
The next picture shows just a part of a large lion pride which had cubs of two different ages
And here is one of the leopard families we met, only one cub but enough to keep mom busy…
And finally here is a very old sketch of a Smilodon fatalis family with two equally playful generations of cubs. The fossil site of Rancho la Brea in California includes a rich record of cubs in many different stages of development. I ended up making a painting from this concept, but it was a very simplified version.