The Animal I Am
Written September 25th, 2009.
I grew up in the woods and hills of the Appalachian mountains in West Virginia, so I'm no stranger to wildlife and nature. Unlike some, I've never needed to suppress my own animal nature to conform to what society expects and demands. I'd spent my childhood as a horse, a raptor (the dinosaur, not the bird), a black leopard, and a wolf at various overlapping times. I brought my animal mannerisms into social and academic settings with almost no repercussions; I was still smart and easy to get along with, so my quirks were never ostracized and condemned. I never had to learn how to not be what I was, though my maturation brought with it new nuances and subtleties.
In 2001, I stumbled across the online therianthropy community when I was reading up on shapeshifters and werewolves, some of my favorite fictional and mythological subjects. I was delighted to find that being an animal was something considered 'real' by people other than myself. I never got involved in the wider community with its forums and greymuzzles, but I found a few well-written sites and devoured their contents hungrily. I met animalfolk on a one-on-one basis, finding and interacting with them personally, rather than in any kind of group setting. My sister and I walked the path of discovery nearly in step, beginning a long process of soul-searching and zoological research to identify ourselves as something more specific than 'feline' and 'canine'.
Like many, I considered wolf as a possibility, as well as cougar and jaguar or leopard. Over the course of the following year, I worked to put a name to my own nature, and eventually settled on lioness. I spent the next few years trying to reconcile how well the physical form of the African lioness suited me with how poorly its environment and social nature fit with my own tendencies, then stumbled across information on Barbary lions. A large, solitary subspecies of lion that lived in the mountains where the seasons changed? I was floored.
Mountains are home: I am a rock-climbing cat. I love the trees and the slopes, the rocks and the streams. Put me in the woods with a rock to climb and a view from the mountains, and I am so unspeakably, fully alive and home. Every part of my body and my heart sings with recognition, with joy, with life. I love the heat of summer and the snow of winter. It felt wrong to think of only having a dry season and a rainy season.
I am not, and have never really been, a social person. I'm a strong introvert, and I am very happy when I'm alone. My human rearing and my human nature drives me to seek a connection with others, establish and maintain a bond, but my felinity plays very little part in that. I value and respect and adore my loved ones, and I will do what I can to help them be healthy and happy and safe, but I am self-centric and independent. I take care of myself first, I walk my own path, and I follow my own urges. I am enough of a pacifist to avoid harming others where I can, but enough of a predator to ensure that I'm not crippled for fear of disrupting others when I'm simply going my own way. I retain control over my own life and my future and my space, even when willingly sharing that life with the people closest to me, like my sister and my mate. I do as I will with little regard for how others may take it, so long as they aren't outright harmed. This is not pack or pride behavior - this is the self-interest and self-contained attitude of a solitary predator.
Everything about Barbaries, even down to the tiny details, fit. They have longer, lower bodies than African lions - and I had previously studied cougar because that kind of low-slung body, moving among the rocks and slopes, felt right. They have greyer, shaggier fur than African lions - and, for as long as I can remember, I'd been drawn to the concept of a grey lion. The weight, the build, the pelt, and even the coloration were a snug match to how I perceived myself, and the social and environmental tendencies were dead-on. It may have taken me years to discover the right subspecies, but discover it I did, and the final piece of my feline identity fell into place.
Barbary. Animalfolk. This is who, and what, I am.