Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Psychology of a predator: big cats

As a keen reader, author and editor, if there’s one thing that gets my goat about some paranormal shifter stories, it’s the representation of the big cats as pack animals, as though they were wolves. Big cats are not wolves and their social structure is very different.
I am a South African who has always been fascinated by the big cats of my land of birth. I’m understandably quite passionate about this topic. I’ve been fortunate enough to go on a number of game drives. I’ve spoken at length with game rangers and folks involved in big cat conservation. Hell, for a long time I was even planning on taking up a career as a game ranger, so I consider myself relatively well informed on the ins and outs of Mother Nature.

So, here’s my take on wild kitties, running through some of my favourite felines.

Majestic hunters, lions are probably the most social cats, and the closest you’ll get to a “pack” cat. In this case, it’s a pride of lions, not a pack. Their social structure is hinged around a dominant male or pair of brothers, who stake out a territory and are attended to by a grouping of lionesses, who are generally related to each other as mothers, sisters, daughters and aunts. The males make sure no other males encroach on their territory. The females tend to do most of the hunting (lucky men!) and the boys get exclusive rights to mate with the females. When rogue lions do encroach, serious fights occur and if an existing lion is ousted, the new male will come in and kill all the youngsters the old lion sired so that the females will come into oestrus sooner. Sounds harsh? That’s nature. She’s red in tooth and claw.

Oh, and here in Africa, spotted hyenas and lions are mortal enemies because they’re competing for the same prey, so there’s another interesting dynamic to follow if you’re looking for a good point of conflict for your shifters.

Leopards are solitary. They’re also very elusive. Males tend to maintain the largest territories overlapping with those of a number of females but they usually don’t hang out together unless they’re, well, getting down to do the dirty. It goes without saying that lions (and other predators) will kill a leopard’s young if they find them, hence the reason why leopards tend to den in inaccessible areas and tree their kills. Did you know one leopard can carry an antelope that weighs almost as much as it does into a tree? A female tends to raise between one and three cubs, who stay with mom until they are able to hunt, but when she’s ready to raise the next cub, the elder cub has to go on out and find his or her own territory. That’s just how the cookie crumbles.

I absolutely adore cheetahs. They’re possibly one of the most underrated species I’ve yet to see in shifter novels. The fastest land mammal, they’re capable of speeds of up to 120kmph (75mph), which they can maintain for short bursts. They tend to borrow the best of being sociable with being solitary. Siblings will often band together shortly after going out to find their place in the world, so you’ll have a pair of brothers or sisters teaming up and co-operating for a while until they’re established. Mom tends to raise her cubs on her own, and will have anywhere between one and five (yes, five!) youngsters. Problem is they’re incredibly vulnerable to pressure from other predators. Often lions and other predators will drive them off their kills. More dog-like than feline, cheetahs have historically been kept by royalty and used for hunting. They hunt chiefly by sight, stalking prey up until a point where that critical short burst of super speed will prove an advantage against the gazelle or prey animal they want to take down.

As an editor, here are some plot bunnies I’m setting loose into the wider world. What if a pride of lion shifters runs a small town and a rogue male decides he’s going to take on the big cat in charge? What unique challenges does a young male lion shifter face when dad tells him it’s time to leave the home range? How does a female lion shifter deal with the situation when her lion man gets ousted? How about a lion shifter who’s a gang lord? Or a fun-loving rogue male who gets into way more trouble than he’s capable of dealing with?

What if a leopard shifter hasn’t found one of her kind in more than five years? What if someone starts bumping off the few leopard shifters who are known to maintain a large selection of territories? How do two leopard shifters resolve a territorial conflict? Leopard shifters could be awesome private investigators or thieves. Can anyone say “Catwoman”?

And here’s one that made me laugh: what if a cheetah shifter becomes a famous catwalk model? (I’m almost begging for a submission from an author for this one.) What about two cheetah shifter brothers who go out into the world for the first time and have to work together to solve a mystery? How does a cheetah shifter deal with a pushy pride of lions? How about the cheetah shifter who is employed by a business tycoon to act as a spy or even an assassin?

Our shifters stand with their paws in two worlds. I often feel that innate wildness, that frisson of danger when associating with these creatures, is often lacking in shifter stories. Get to know the animals you want to portray then find ways to marry their true nature with the human side so that you can build a complex and fascinating creature that marries the best aspects of both species. I feel of late too much emphasis is placed on just the “finding mates” theme. Boinkfests can be fun but, really, I’d like to see more.

What sort of spirituality would big cat shifters have? Think beyond the obvious Lady Sekhmet or Bast of Egyptian cosmology.

There is so much more to play with if we would just look deeper and conduct more research. Shifters as protagonists can do so much more than just have absolutely earth-shattering encounters of a carnal kind. I’m not saying we should cut back on erotic content. Cats are amazingly sensual creatures but hell, we’re missing out on an epic adventure.

And, as an aside, I suppose I’m adding that yes, I’d love to chat to authors about a shifter novel with a difference, so drop me an email at nerinedorman@gmail.com if you’ve an idea or two.


Sondrae Bennett said...

Very thought provoking post. I have to say, I both agree and disagree. I certainly agree authors need to research the animals before writing their shifters. I always find shifters that incorporate traits from the animals the most interesting. For example, in my second book in my Alpine Woods Shifter series (not yet released), the heroine is an otter. The other otters in her romp are flirty and promiscuous based on otter's playful natures and they have incresed sense of their surroundings because otters do when in water. I also have a scene where the h is hunting and I did a lot of research before writing the scene so it could be accurate to their nature. However, I think it's important to remember that shifters are half human so there's room to play outside of animal mannerisms. What I mean is, yes, cats are more solitary creatures but humans are social creatures so as far as prides are concerned it's not unreasonable to expect a jaguar shifter to live in a community (but I agree it should differ from the way a wolf shifter community behaves). At least that's my feelings on the subject.

Basically, yes, authors should do a lot of research, but I don't think they need to be strict about following everything they learn.

Sutton Fox said...

The plot bunnies have me asking, "What if..." Much food for thought.

Thank you for the excellent post, Nerine.

Nerine Dorman said...

Essentially, I'm fishing to see if I can tempt some authors to try something a little off the beaten track.