Several days ago, Lillith, a year-old lynx who had escaped from Borth Animal Kingdom was shot dead by marksmen on the orders of Ceredigion council at a caravan park in Aberystwyth.
She escaped from her pen by climbing a sapling and diving over a 4-metre fence and two electrified wires whilst chasing a bird and spent nearly two weeks on the run living on a local crag and on the hillsides before entering the park.
The council has defended its actions by saying the risk posed to the public once the lynx had entered the caravan park was ‘severe’. However, no records exist of lynxes attacking humans. There is no evidence to suggest Lillith would have been a danger.
Her unnecessary death struck me as yet another occasion where near-groundless fears about human safety have trumped the value of the life of a non-human. For this reason the wolf was hunted into extinction. Here, in my locality, I have seen countless trees cut down because of fears they might fall and injure someone.
Such decisions are based on the anthropocentric worldview held by our councils and the government as a whole. Within our current system of values there is no room for arguments that the non-human world and its manifold creatures have intrinsic worth beyond their benefit to humans.
When a human kills another human it’s murder. When a human kills an animal it’s ‘humane destruction’.
Lillith’s shooting symbolises our lack of respect and reverence for a wild creature whose ancestors, members of the Eurasian lynx family (lynx lynx), have inhabited Europe since the Pleistocene.
Bones from Dog Hole Fissure in Derbyshire and Kitley Shelter Cave on Dartmoor show the lynx was present in Britain around 7000 BCE. Remains from Reindeer Cave in Sutherland, and Kinsey Cave and Moughton Fell Cave in North Yorkshire show it survived into the 5th and 6th centuries.
The name ‘lynx’ derives from the Indo-European root leuk, ‘light, brightness’, which refers to its luminescent eyes. This links it to the Brythonic god, Lugus, the Irish Lugh, and the Welsh Lleu. In early Welsh poetry the lynx was known as llewyn or llewon. This may derive from llew, ‘lion’ and mean ‘little lion’.
Whereas Britain’s other great predator, the wolf, possesses reams of mythology and folklore there is considerably less about the lynx. It is mentioned in ‘Arthur and the Porter’, an early Welsh poem from The Black Book of Carmarthen (1350) which describes the assaults of Arthur and his men on a number of mythical animals including Cynvyn, ‘Dog Heads’, and Cath Palug, ‘Clawing Cat’:
Cai the fair went to Mona
to devastate Llewon.
It was during the Arthurian period, as Christianity became the dominant religion, that we lost our reverence for the old gods and the natural world. Animals, real and mythic, who were revered as deities in their own right and hunted respectfully and with due ceremony became monsters for heroes to pit their strength against and eradicate from the human-centred world.
A lynx (‘llewyn’) also appears in ‘Dinogad’s Smock’, a lullaby oddly contained in The Gododdin (1250) which is a poem composed of elegies for the Brythonic warriors who fell fighting against the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Catraeth (Catterick) in 600CE:
When thy father went a-hunting,
A spear on his shoulder, a club in his hand,
He would call the nimble hounds,
‘Giff, Gaff; catch, catch, fetch, fetch!’
He would kill a fish in his coracle
As a lion kills its prey.
When they father went to the mountain
He would bring back a roe-buck, a wild boar, a stag,
A speckled grouse from the mountain.
A fish from Rheadr Derwennyd.
Of all those that thy father reached with his lance,
Wild boar and lynx and fox,
None escaped which was not winged.
This poem perhaps harks back to the older worldview where hunting was a sacred pursuit and necessary for a family’s survival. Lynxes had been hunted into extinction by the 7th century.
The lack of lore surrounding the lynx may be due to its secretive nature. Paul O’Donoghue of the Lynx UK Trust, who are advocating for the reintroduction of the lynx, says ‘The lynx is called the ghost cat because people don’t know it’s there – it is very elusive.’
In spite of the knowledge of experts Lillith was shot down as a result of our irrational fears, our holding to an Arthurian worldview in which we are taught to be afraid of the wild and that it is acceptable and may even be considered heroic to devastate llewon.
Encouragingly the outrage provoked by Lillith’s death shows that an increasing number of people are shrugging off that worldview.
may your soul go light-footed
to the Otherworld.
May your story live on.
*Since writing this article I found out that another adult lynx called Nilly from Borth Animal Kingdom died last week due to ‘a terrible handling error where it seems she twisted in the catch-pole and became asphyxiated.’ Paul Donoghue of the Lynx UK Trust has criticised them for ‘incompetence and ineptitude’ and protesters are campaigning for the zoo to be shut down.
A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin, Y Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)
David Naish, ‘Britain’s Lost Lynxes and Wildcats’, Tetrapod Zoology,
‘Arthur and the Porter’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective,
‘The lynx effect: search for one-year-old Lillith continues in West Wales’, The Guardian
‘Safety was paramount: council defends decision to shoot Lillith the Lynx’, The Guardian
‘Campaigners demand Welsh zoo be shut after death of second lynx’, The Guardian