Although the phrase of “the lion shall lie down with the lamb” is one of the more popular quotes from the Bible, it’s really misquoted. In the King James version, it’s the wolf that dwells with the lamb, and it’s a leopard that lies down with a kid, and “the calf and the young lion and the fatling together.” (Isaiah 11:6)
But in today’s world, there really is a lion that lies down with a calf…in fact, she adopted and nurtured a total of five antelope calves.
It’s a remarkable story of the love of one animal for another, and it seems to personify the truth that not all natural enemies are exactly that—natural and unavoidable enemies.
On Christmas Day of 2001, game wardens at the Samburu National Park in Kenya watched as an adult lioness frightened off an oryx antelope mother, and picked up her baby calf in its mouth. Because lions normally hunt these antelope, they assumed the lion would kill and eat the baby. But then the unexpected happened.
The lion, named Larsens, began to nuzzle and fondle the frail little creature. Behavioral scientists first stated that the lioness had probably mistaken the oryx calf for a lion cub. But then the lioness showed her awareness of the calf as another species, because she allowed the calf to return to her natural mother to nurse.
For more than two weeks, the lioness Larsens nudged the little calf along, all the while allowing her to return to her antelope mother for nourishment before chasing the mother antelope away once again.
The fragile baby oryx was seen crossing the savannah with her lioness “mother,” and would curl up by her side for naps. Tragedy struck one day while the lioness napped by a water hole. While the baby oryx was playing, another lion attacked and killed it.
According to the wardens, Larsens was enraged when she woke. Ten times she circled the lion that killed her oryx calf, roaring all the while. Then she disappeared from view.
Larsens was seen a few weeks later, following herds of oryx antelope. “She never kills them,” said one warden. “When she is hungry, she goes after warthogs.”
But Larsens would again amaze the rangers with her mothering instincts. On Valentine’s Day, 2002, lioness Larsens was spotted with another oryx calf. And just like the last one, she’d adopted the calf as her own.
It seemed Larsens had learned the need to protect her new baby from other lions and predators. She guarded the new baby ferociously, chasing off any lions that approached. “There are other lions trying to attack the lioness to get to the baby, but the rangers are watching them and the lioness is protecting the calf,” said park warden Mark Lenya-kopir.
“This is one extraordinarily maternal cat,” said lion expert Jim Cavenor. “I've seen lions adopt a few small animals, but they usually end up turning round and eating them after a couple of days. But she seems to be totally fixated on this little one.”
Unlike the common assumptions of most people, animals do think. Their thinking is not some robotic response to environmental stimuli, but an active, cognitive reasoning. Larsens is proof of this. She adopted a series of what was normally a “prey” species for lions, and protected them as her own. She knew she could not provide nourishment for them, and allowed them to return to their mothers for food.
Larsens is just one example of how animals react with emotion, with feeling and with true knowledge of what they are doing. She ultimately adopted a total of five oryx calves, giving all of them fierce protection and tender care while ignoring her own basic needs. Her actions have made her a legend among the people of Kenya, and they bestowed another name on her because of their reverence for her loving nature.
The Samburu people call her Kamunyak—the blessed one.
Sources: The Observer, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy