When the big cat eats the black man

It was important that this man was thrown in jail. It is very bad that he is not spending more time there. Let me tell you why.

The South African man convicted of feeding one of his ex-workers to the lions is due to be freed on parole shortly, after three years in jail.

Mark Scott-Crossley was originally given a life sentence for murder but this was reduced after a judge said there was no proof the man was alive. [at the time the victim was thrown into the lion cage]

The remains of Nelson Chisale’s body were found in the lion enclosure, causing a national outcry.

The case highlighted the racial tensions in rural South Africa.


I’m been chastised (by white South Africans) for what I’m about to say, but I’m sticking to my guns. (Metaphorical guns, that is.) I have a story you need to hear, though there is a bit of an introduction:

One could say that there is a wide range of opinions among people about any given thing, with individuals ranging along a spectrum so that every possible combination of opinions from one extreme to the other is represented in any population of sufficient size. But this is not true. People tend to acquire their opinions from the surrounding cultural environment, and this leads to homogenization within subgroups and a much greater level of simple patterning in the larger population. In common parlance we call this “polarization” (although that is not really the best term for this).

So, among white South Africans there is a subgroup, maybe rural (as the BBC piece implies, but I’m not so sure), who do in fact long for the old days of apartheid, and who demonstrate disturbingly racist views. Many Americans over the years of Apartheid who went to South Africa were missionaries, business people, or mercenaries, who tended to at least go along with if not support or even revel in prevailing paternalistic and racist views towards “blacks” and “coloureds.” In my experience, first going to South Africa not long after the beginning of the Post Apartheid days of the New South Africa, it was not uncommon for these white South Africans to exploit what they saw as conversational opportunities to express these racist views with Americans. You see, their prior experience was that Americans were ready to hear remarks such as “They really were happier under the old way. They need someone to tell them what to do. I mean, just look at them.” or “They really have no sense of pain or of life and death. They can’t really sense suffering,” and so on.

How does one deal with this sort of thing? Well, let the conversation continue for a while so you get a few of these things on the table, then start turning the shame screws. This won’t change that person’s mind (I assume) but if a person is chastised more often than not (or at least, more often than never!) when flaunting their unabashed racism, eventually, they just may shut up.

And when they shut up, they can’t as easily pass these views on laterally and into the future.

So, once upon a time … and one or two of you may remember this, because you were there … I was visiting a facility in South Africa not unlike the one where this incident … the lion eating the worker incident … happened. Not the same facility.

An incident had occurred in this facility a few weeks earlier. A man had been killed and eaten by the large cats. The incident had been reported as such, it was considered to be an accident, and the authorities were happy with that. I assume that this is true … that the killing and consumption of a man by two large predators was an accident and that the description of the event that I will give you now is accurate, and not a made up cover story. This, anyway, is my distinct impression.

So, there we were visiting this facility, getting a tour of the ‘back lot’ … where tourists were not normally allowed. The owner of the facility was pointing out this and that animal or enclosure, explaining how and why they were doing what they were doing with the big cats, and so on.

At one point we got to a place where one could see the entry office, where visitors paid their fee to go into the facility, as well as a series of large enclosures that were secondarily surrounded by a security fence. the security fence was enhanced with razor wire, but not very tall. This was not designed to stop cats, but rather, people. the fences around the big cats did not have razor wire, but they were very very tall and I think they were topped with a hot wire … which is something that would not stop a human (because we ‘get’ electric fences and can work around them). But the great height (like, maybe ten meters?) of the fences and the electric strand would keep the cats inside the enclosures.

So now, standing in view of both the entry way off in one direction and the large cat enclosures in the other, we heard the story of the man who was eaten.

He was a robber. He came at sun down, after the facility was closed but before it was totally shut down for bed, and went to the entry office. Using some sort of knife or other weapon (not a firearm) he demanded from the person in the office the contents of the cash box. Which he was given. But, the alarm somehow went out and the three or four big guys … who were telling me this story …. came after the robber. They showed us where they chased him. They showed us where the robber, daunted by the razor wire but thinking one of the enclosure fences was an outer fence, climbed to the top of the fence to get away.

They noted how it was obvious to the pursuers that the robber was about to climb into the cage of two adult sleeping … large … predators. And how they did nothing to stop him. They did not warn him. He climbed over the fence, let himself down to the ground and gave his pursuers a victorious look. He raised his middle finger to give his pursuers a profane victory salute, it is said. And the pursuers … not really pursuing him any more … stood silently, staring back at him.

And they watched the cats, who were asleep at the beginning of this incident but who were now profoundly awake, pounce on him, kill him, and eat him. The pursuers, the owners and controllers of the cats, watched and did nothing.

That they did not warn him was noted as an intentional act and described as an act of justice.

He had, after all, robbed them. So of course, he cold be killed.

The incident described in the BBC report above demonstrates that the death of a black worker by lion in a lion facility is to be taken seriously. This man was convicted of something like homicide. That would make one think, if you were a person with a cat farm. But then the sentence was reduced because it may have been wrongful death followed by improper disposal of a body. That is all pretty absurd (and makes me wonder about the details of the system, the ethnicity of the judge, and so on).

The incident I describe is atrocious, but not to the same degree … no one threw anyone else in a cage of big cats. But, they are both similar incidents in that they were events where a black person died at the claws of the white man’s large cats, without any regard for the humanity and human rights of the victim. Or even the essential victimhood of the victim.

Large cats are in fact used as instruments in homicide in South Africa more often than you might think. I know of a case, for instance, where a body … of a man murdered with a knife … was cast to the lions to get rid of the evidence (didn’t work).

But how often over the last decade or so has an incident in which a person was killed by a caged cat been related in a story in which the cats were the heros … because the victim was black?

I think stories like this were told with the giddiness of self justification more often before this recent conviction, and less often thereafter. But now, it turns out, you get only a couple of years in the stir if your cat eats the black man. A couple of years can make a person a hero. Maybe this particular racist disregard for life will now rebound in the cat farms and other places on the subcontinent.

I hope not, but it probably will. At least among the old guard, as they slowly fade away.


  1. #1 SimonG
    August 21, 2008

    It’s impossible to make an informed comment when we don’t know all the details of the homicide. However, if it really was a case of accidental death, or even perhaps manslaughter, followed by disposal of the body then three years doesn’t strike me as completely unreasonable. I could quite easily believe that the original conviction for murder was tainted by horror about the victim being eaten and was not a fair verdict.

    Your own anecdote could well be rather different. Due to economic circumstances – not to mention their greater numbers! – it’s black and coloured South Africans who are most likely to be the perpetrators of robberies. Perhaps the people you spoke to would have been just as cavalier about the life of a white robber. Did they exhibit racist tendancies elsewhere?

    Regrettably, a lot of people take a very harsh view of the rights of those who steal from them. I routinely hear people say that they’d like to seriously hurt or even kill those who steal from them or offend them in other ways. It’s one of the reasons that the justice system is so important. Leaving a man to be eaten strikes me as more a case of harsh (in)justice towards a robber, not towards a particular race.

  2. #2 greg laden
    August 21, 2008

    Simon, I assure you that the context of the indifference of the black man being eaten by the big cats was entirely one of abject racism. I know everyone (but the victim) and have known them or of them for a very long time. There is no ambiguity.

    There is quite a bit of ambiguity about the other case for me because I don’t know the people, but I do know the context pretty well. My understanding is that the victim was beaten to death or nearly to death allegedly (according to two or three witnesses) under orders of the white employer, with or without that person’s direct involvement. Then the victim was thrown into the lion cage and either killed and partly eaten or merely partly eaten. There were difficulties, as I recall, in making the case of the white employer’s involvement in this case.

  3. #3 Matt Hussein Platte
    August 21, 2008

    I’d like to sharpen Simon’s point a bit: Okay, we accept that the catkeepers are racists. Had the robber been a Dutchman, would the catkeepers have let him climb to certain death?

    I’m guessing they would.

  4. #4 Mimi
    August 21, 2008

    This really all does seem quite fishy and it is a shame that with all the discrepancies this case has had that they would let him out.

  5. #5 jim
    August 21, 2008

    I suspect that the cat keepers were racists. I am assuming if he was a Dutchman they would have warned him. Of course, I have no evidence of that.

    Nevertheless, by the keepers keeping silent about what cage the robber was climbing into they are accessories to murder. The cats are murderers, but they are not competent to stand trial. (They have no sense of the “right and wrong” in our world; they are wild animals.) The cats should not suffer any punishment. Doing nothing to prevent the man from climbing into the cage is assent that you want him to die. This lack of action makes the punishment out of proportion to the crime. In addition, the keepers were acting as judge, jury and method of execution for the man; they were not allowing proper legal means for dealing with the robbery.

    A friend of mine witnessed a similar horror in Romania when it was under Checesque. (I don’t know how to spell the dictator’s name) Abortion was illegal there at the time. Her friend got pregnant and went to a back alley abortionist. Her friend was bleeding terribly. She took her to the hospital. The hospital let her friend bleed to death. They told her that abortion was illegal and they don’t treat women who have abortions. In my mind the hospital should not have been allowed to do nothing. Maybe they should contact the police about it after treating the person, but not let her die.

  6. #6 Joel
    August 21, 2008

    Watching someone climb into a lion’s cage without warning them is despicable. An employer ordering the beating of an employee is even worse.

    Apartheid lives on.

  7. #7 Stephanie Z
    August 21, 2008

    Let’s also add to the evidence of lingering apartheid that one of the employees who carried out the order is still imprisoned on the murder charge and will be for many more years while the person who used him for violence goes free. Anybody want to speculate about the color of his skin, his financial prospects without that job, or what would have happened to him if he’d refused to help and suddenly become an ex-employee himself?

  8. #8 SimonG
    August 21, 2008

    There were difficulties, as I recall, in making the case of the white employer’s involvement in this case.

    It certainly sounds like the guy was rather fortunate. I’m not sure that’s wrong, though. I think that the legal system should try to be fair and impartial, and take care for the rights of the accused. Unfortunately that can lead to criminals being acquited, but so be it.

    Lest you misunderstood my earlier comment, I wasn’t doubting what you described, merely seeking more information.

  9. #9 Matt Hussein Platte
    August 22, 2008

    The racists I’ve known have been more than just racists: cruel, violent, proud of their ignorance, etc. To attribute all their ghastly behaviour to just one aspect, racism, is simplistic and really doesn’t get at the real dimension of the problem we, the more rational ones, are facing.

    Greg’s next post is illustrative.

  10. #10 Stephanie Z
    August 22, 2008

    Matt, you live in a society that has actively fought racism for some time. The people who are still willing to openly express racism in this society are self-selecting and not representative of all racists, particularly not those from a society where racism was deeply institutionalized until quite recently.

    I find it really interesting that both you and SimonG read Greg’s post, in which he said he’s talked to people who don’t think blacks feel pain and decided that racism probably wasn’t part of the incidents Greg described. First, Greg knows these people and listened to their description of events. Second, generalizing to South Africa from American experience isn’t terribly safe. Violence against blacks, dehumanization of blacks, were not merely an undercurrent in South Africa. They were broadly accepted, legal, promoted as a means of maintaining a stable society for the majority of many people’s lifetimes.

    A person doesn’t have to be particularly reprehensible to commit atrocities when their whole world revolves around one big atrocity. The people who told Greg about the robbery weren’t slavering ogres. They were people doing something their society had told them was acceptable, which is why punishment for Scott-Crossley is important. It was an opportunity to say, very clearly, that no matter what society said twenty years ago, this was no longer acceptable.

  11. #11 David Marjanovi?
    August 22, 2008

    Checesque. (I don’t know how to spell the dictator’s name)

    Ceau?escu. Pronounced chow-SHESS-koo, with chow as in chowder.

  12. #12 David Marjanovi?
    August 22, 2008

    Oh, fuck. Stupid Safari. That’s an s with a cedilla. If I don’t forget, I’ll post it again in a few hours.

  13. #13 Ben Zvan
    August 22, 2008

    If I recall correctly, in my area (liberal Minnesota-land), it is legal to shoot and kill anyone on your property if you are protecting your life or property. I’m not sure how that goes with non-homesteaded or commercial land.

    Clearly, this guy was trying to escape and it would be the equivalent of shooting him in the back and maybe not good legal ground to be coming from.

    I also suspect that if I, a white dude, were to shoot a black burglar, I would get more lenience if the entry wound were not exactly square in the chest.

    Anyway, there you go.

  14. #14 greg laden
    August 22, 2008

    You can’t shoot people in South Africa, I think. Independently of that, if you keep big cats you need a permit and you sign something that says you won’t let the cats eat people.

  15. #15 Ben Zvan
    August 22, 2008

    A wise idea. They should do something like that with guns here.