So you see, if you fall into a lion’s pit, the reason the lion will tear you to pieces is not because it’s hungry–be assured, zoo animals are amply fed–or because it’s bloodthirsty, but because you’ve invaded its territory.
As an aside, that is why a circus trainer must always enter the lion ring first, and in full sight of the lions. In doing so, he establishes that the ring is his territory, not theirs, a notion that he reinforces by shouting, by stomping about, by snapping his whip. The lions are impressed. Their disadvantage weighs heavily on them. Notice how they come in: mighty predators though they are,
“kings of beasts,” they crawl in with their tails low and they keep to the edges of the ring, which is always round so that they have nowhere to hide. They are in the presence of a strongly dominant male, a super-alpha male, and they must submit to his dominance rituals. So they open their jaws wide, they sit up, they jump through paper-covered hoops, they crawl through tubes, they walk backwards, they roll over. “He’s a queer one,” they think dimly. “Never seen a top lion like him.
But he runs a good pride. The larder’s always full and–let’s be honest, mates–his antics keep us busy. Napping all the time does get a bit boring. At least we’re not riding bicycles like the brown bears or catching flying plates like the chimps.”
Only the trainer better make sure he always remains super alpha. He will pay dearly if he unwittingly slips to beta. Much hostile and aggressive behaviour among animals is the expression of social insecurity. The animal in front of you must know where it stands, whether above you or below you. Social rank is central to how it leads its life. Rank determines whom it can associate with and how; where and when it can eat; where it can rest; where it can drink; and so on. Until it knows its rank for certain, the animal lives a life of unbearable anarchy. It remains nervous, jumpy, dangerous. Luckily for the circus trainer, decisions about social rank among higher animals are…