All animals — wild or domestic, big or small — fight, usually with their own kind but also among species. And we take ghoulish pleasure when fur and feathers fly, with serial TV programmes on nature channels beaming these battles into our drawing rooms. These fights can be vicious, leading to horrendous injuries and, even, death. But, unlike us in so many cases, animals usually have three or four good reasons to fight — all linked to survival. They often fight over mates. Though it’s usually the males who fight over the females, there are cases when the latter go tooth and nail at each other over the former, for instance, painted snipe and moorhens.
In some cases, honour and ego are at stake, too. For example, not too long ago, our Boxer Chops, then less than eight months old, roared into battle against a skirmish-hardened rangy black cur that dared make eyes at then eight-month-old Bambi, our other Boxer, who didn’t seem to mind the Lothario’s attention.
Upstart young dadas often try to take over the harem of an established old bruiser — usually with disastrous consequences — though at some point of time the young pretender will triumph bringing the old fogey’s reign to an end. And, distressingly, will kill all his babies, regardless of what their mothers might think. I was once threatened by a butch nilgai bull which thought I was making eyes at his harem of does and had to slowly retreat from the area. Inadvertently, while photographing birds, I had come between him and his golden girls. Boss dudes and dudettes, aka alphas — wolves, for example — usually achieve their status by fighting and overwhelming pack rivals and ensuring that every animal in the pack pays homage to them and remembers their place in the hierarchy.
Animals also fight over territory and feeding rights. Wild carnivores — the big cats, for example — regularly patrol “their” territory, and woe betide any interloper that dares muscle in. The prime property is worth fighting over. I’ve watched a brown-faced barbet being thrown out of its home by a lesser golden-backed woodpecker, which, in turn, was rudely ousted by a pair of common mynas. They eventually had to give up the valuable property (a hole in a tree trunk) to a swarm of bees. Battles become fierce when food and water are scarce and feeding and drinking rights have to be established. Usually, the bigger animal gets the first choice. But, sometimes, compromises are reached. For example, hippos and crocs — usually fiercely territorial — will share a shrinking pond in proximity to each other until it rains and there are enough private swimming pools for all.
Even “domestic” animals such as cats fight hideously over territory and hunting rights. I once witnessed a horrendous catfight in the front porch: it started with a witch-like mewling that rose until it hit a crescendo and then the combatants were at each other, virtually at my feet, raking, tearing and biting each other until one looked like it had got its face caught in a weed whacker.
But, perhaps, the fiercest fights erupt when mothers defend their young or feel that their babies are being threatened. “Don’t ever get between a mother and her baby” is one adage ingrained in all wildlifers: it holds true for everything from a rhesus macaque to a rhinoceros. Even your gentle Labrador will turn into a snarling fiend if she thinks her puppies are being threatened.
Every living creature values its life — and will either fight or flee — to protect it. While all a predator wants is to kill its prey as quickly as possible, the latter will fight for its life.
Some animals are notorious for their short fuses. Rhinos, hippos, buffaloes and solitary bull elephants in musth (all gentle vegetarians!) are among the leaders in the field — rhinos, probably because they’re as short-sighted as short-tempered; hippos because they’re fiercely territorial, and bull elephants in musth because they’re stoked up with 60 times the normal dose of testosterone and will flatten practically everything they come across. Others with irascible an temperament include honey badgers (which attack no matter how big their “enemy”), the Tasmanian devil and pit bull terriers, though I have read reports of how at least the latter two are really sweetie-pie softies, which have been royally maligned. Still, I wouldn’t like to find out personally.
Then there are those that “fight”, I suspect, just to have a bit of fun. Early one summer morning, a pair of common mynas suddenly fell out of the sky near the swimming pool: their claws were meshed, their eyes blazed and they stabbed (ineffectually) at each other. Almost immediately afterwards, I heard another soft whump and right near them on the grass was another pair of mynas — also locked in kushti. I was about to rush off to fetch the camera when they gave a soft whickering call, disengaged and flew off happily!
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher.