So I was reading this book called ZAMBA written by an animal trainer, Ralph Helfer, about this lion he owned and trained. And in some ways I liked this book. It’s very anecdotal rather than having any kind of coherent story line as such, but some of the anecdotes are truly touching. Like the thing after the storm when the horses died? And the flood at the end? Wow.
But right at the beginning, I was so peeved at the author and I’m not sure I ever got over it, because he said this: working with a lion presented such huge challenges because the big cats are solitary animals and not really primed to be social. [This isn’t a direct quote, but it’s what he said.]
And I thought:
A) This guy, who is supposed to be such an amazing trainer and particularly into lions, nevertheless knows so little about lions that he doesn’t even know they live in prides, which every single American kindergartner knows, or
B) In order to make his decision to raise and train a lion seem more impressive to his readers, those rubes, he is totally lying about lion behavior, even though every single reader has got to know that this statement he’s making about lions being solitary animals is completely bogus.
I’m going for option B, but jeez, really? This is so not a good thing to do. The lying to the reader thing, I mean. Even if you’re doing it to sound impressive. Even if it’s transparently false. No.
So, this was nonfiction, but IMO it would work the same way in fiction. If you’re writing about lions in a fictional world, but you’re reprensenting them as real lions, then you can’t go making totally false statements about lion behavior just because that makes your plot work out. Not even if you think your readers won’t know the difference. I mean, I will. And I’ll care, too.
So: most fictional wolves are terrible wolves, but this only bothers me if the wolves are being presented as real wolves. Etc.
You know who did a really good wolf? Gordon Dickson, in THE IRON YEARS. I heard somewhere that he wrote this, it was published, and a wolf researcher contacted him and said Man, did you ever mess that up, that was not a wolf, that was a dog, I am so tired of people putting wolves in their books but really they are dogs. And Dickson, amazingly enough, was impressed, asked a lot of questions about wolves, and rewrote the story so the animal was a wolf.
Even though I didn’t actually like the book all that well, I read it and by golly when he got through with it, that animal was indeed a wolf and not a dog. One of the very very few in fiction.
ANYWAY, not to wonder from the subject, but lions ARE NOT SOLITARY.
Nevertheless, yes, the trainer sounds like he was a really good guy, if a little too open minded about certain touchy-feeley nonsense (putting a lion on a vegetarian diet because eating meat promotes violence? Are you kidding me?); the lion sounds like an amazing animal; and some bits of the book were very emotionally affecting. So, hey, I’ll be discarding this book, but it wasn’t actually bad.
ps — When a friend of mine and I watched The Lion King? We made MANY SNARKY COMMENTS about the inaccurate lion behavior and then made up a much more logical plot in which the lion brothers — the king and his brother — stood shoulder to shoulder against the perfidy of, well, it doesn’t matter, the point is, in the real world, lion brothers are very important allies for each other. Isn’t that interesting?