Megan and I met the lions because I wanted to go to the zoo. I’d read about the zoo in the local newspaper, about how the people who took care of the animals protected them in the winter. The zoo was in a forest, mostly tall balsam firs. That morning the trees were covered with fluffy new snow. It was a bright, sunny morning and the snow sparkled.
“They’re giant Christmas trees!” Megan said. She skipped ahead and twirled around, her arms out, her long, gloriously red hair flying. She stopped. “It’s just like Christmas morning!”
I grinned. “Merry Christmas!” And I thought again about how lucky I was that this beautiful, happy woman had fallen in love with me, a guy ten years older than she was.
Megan and I enjoyed walking hand in hand through the forest, visiting the animals. It was a big zoo and there were all kinds of animals: turkeys, donkeys, goats, llamas, camels and zebras. They even had a jaguar.
Megan asked, “Why don’t all the tropical animals freeze?”
“Remember the newspaper article I showed you?” We hadn’t been a couple long but I’d already noticed that, for a university student, she didn’t read all that much. “The newspaper said that most of the animals from warmer climates adapt to our winters okay. They just grow much thicker coats.”
Then we came to a sign that said: The Lions →
Megan and I took the pathway lined with fir trees. Ahead we saw a high wire-mesh fence. As we got closer to the lions’ enclosure, we could see more and more through the trees. First I spotted the big male lion, his head circled by a bushy mane. He was sitting on the other side of the enclosure watching us, he never took his eyes off us. The lions’ enclosure was the size of four tennis courts. There was a foot of snow and the lions had packed down a wide path all the way around the inside of the fence. When Megan and I reached the enclosure, we realized the lioness was on our side, sitting right next to the fence. We walked up slowly until only the railing and the fence separated us from her—the lioness was six feet away.
“They’re so proud,” I said quietly.
“She’s beautiful! Aren’t you pretty, pretty lion?” She was talking the way she talked to her dog.
The lioness curled her lip and showed Megan just a glimpse of one long, sharp front tooth.
“They don’t like baby talk,” I said.
“You’re so pretty, yes you arrrrrre,” Megan cooed.
The lioness looked away.
“Don’t do that,” I said.
Across the enclosure, the big male, who never stopped watching us, stood up.
“Look here, pretty lion, pretty lion, look here.” She leaned over the railing and waved her mitten.
The lioness turned back. She stared at Megan. She roared—just for half a second—but it was a sound that could only come from a big animal who wanted to kill with her teeth.
Megan jerked back as I snapped, “Don’t do that!”
Megan turned away and looked down. I was sorry and didn’t like her being upset, so I moved my body against hers and put my arms around her. “They’re lions. Out in the wild, they’re in charge. They can’t stand baby talk.” Then I said, “The lion is coming.”
When the big male heard his mate’s roar, he came to her at a trot but he didn’t go straight across the enclosure through the snow, he followed the packed-down path along the fence. The lioness hadn’t moved; she still sat defiantly six feet away from us. When the lion reached the lioness, he nudged her bum with his nose and they walked away, down the enclosure. He stopped her and suddenly they wrestled – affectionately – but the snow was flying. They went up on their hind legs, their front legs around each other in an embrace, their mouths open.
“Look at that!” Megan called out.
The lions dropped to the ground. The lioness lay down with her back to us. The lion lay down with his body against hers, but facing us, watching us.
“Did you see how he came to her?” I asked quietly. “He didn’t like her being upset.”