Skip to content

At the Movies: Living with Leopards

Image: Sammy Wong

I didn’t expect this week’s At the Movies to be a lesson in young adult rites of passage, but here I am, weeping and reaching for the tissues while a leopard pounces on an impala. 

And I’m not crying over the impala.

Living with Leopards

The new Netflix documentary Living with Leopards follows a mother leopard and her two cubs from their birth to young adulthood, cataloging their lives in the stunning landscape of Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

A crew of about ten or so photographers and videographers tracked the elusive leopards through the wilderness for over two years, capturing stunning, never-before-seen footage of the interactions between a mother, her cubs, their father, nomadic males, their prey, and the patterns and seasons of nature so that we might catch a glimpse of one more of God’s magnificent creatures.

Finding the Love: Faithifying Your Viewing

There’s a moment in the documentary following the mother leopard and her cubs when the cubs have outstayed their welcome. 

It appears as if these two young adults may be experiencing a failure to launch.

Things start to fall apart with the female cub first. All along, the female cub has been the best student. She’s the one who comes running every time Mom calls. She’s a quick learner, probably the first of the two twin cubs out of the womb. Typical first born. 

But something snaps in adolescence.

You can see it coming—the daughter has all kinds of opinions about her mom’s territory and would like to bring around some male leopards for extra company. The next thing you know, there’s a fight. Mom has had it

Out you go, kid. Time to find yourself a new territory. 

The male cub, who has spent most of his childhood goofing off and failing to learn the lessons his mother has been trying to impart upon him, hangs around a little while longer. No matter how many times his mother shows him the tricks of the trade and the skills of the hunt, the male cub is intent on learning the hard way… and failing every time.

Until he finally makes a kill, and it’s the gateway drug to independence. Suddenly, the male cub also has opinions about Mom. He’s up in her face about everything. Once again, Mom has had it. There’s a fight, Mom wins, and the male cub is out on his own, likely never to be seen by his mom again.

At first this seems heartbreaking, and the commentators say so. Despite our attempts not to anthropomorphize the experiences of animals, we just can’t help but compare them to our own human relationships, and a mother kicking her own son and daughter out, never to see them again? We can’t imagine it.

But this has to happen. It is just as much a part of our growing up process as it is for the leopards. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the mother daughter and mother son relationship during this pivot point in our lives, as our children approach their own launch from high school into college or whatever comes next. Part of me is desperate to cling to the relationship we have now, and part of me knows the more I cling, the more I will exasperate the young adults who want to and need to make their own way. 

At the same time, there’s an important reality that staying—failing to launch—will require a renegotiation of the terms of their residence. And if we can’t agree to those terms, there will come a day when Mom and Dad will have to say, that’s it. We’ve had it. Out you go. 

Our own daughters and sons must “leave and cleave,” as the Bible puts it, leave what is known and comfortable for a life that is unknown and uncomfortable and independent, or perhaps more accurately, interdependent, either on friends or a partner or another community group. Leaving is a rite of passage, in the human world and in the animal kingdom.

Story after story in the Old Testament and three letters in the New Testament explicitly address these rites of passage as the elder generation makes way for or escorts in the younger generation. In 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, Paul has practical instructions for how the older men and women are to teach and encourage the younger men and women.

No matter how much that season of nurturing and training may have been cherished, every season must end. These rites of passage require both the strong foundation of lessons learned and the trust that God will carry us (or them) through to the other side. Sometimes, the younger generation doesn’t want to leave on their own terms. Sometimes, the home turf is pretty comfortable. After all, Mom’s home-cooked impala is pretty good.

And sometimes, the older generation is unwilling to let go. Sometimes, in order to make a way and find their own faith expression, the younger generation has to strike out from their parents’ ways, their family’s faith tradition, or their family’s geographic reach. Abraham felt that call from God and so have so many other young followers, earnestly seeking an authentic relationship with the God of the universe that might end up looking different from what their parents practiced, which is okay, and normal, and good.

This is the way, and we all, if we’re lucky, get to walk in it, through every painful, joyful season and challenging, strength-building transition, from birth to death. 

With God’s mercy, I hope to be among the middle-aged parents watching their cubs transition into adults, whispering as they walk away, “Oh dear heart, you did it. You made your kill, just like your mama! You’re going to be just fine.”

Share on Social

Back To Top