The Kleinmachnow lioness

Dalcash Dvinsky
6 min readJul 22, 2023

I’m writing this in my capacity as Big Cat Consultant, which is not a real job. A bunch of random guys in the United Kingdom like to call themselves Big Cat Consultants, without having any official accreditation or really particularly relevant expertise. Among the eclectic group of the Big Cat Consultants I might be the only one who actually doesn’t believe in the continuous presence of Big Cats in the UK, which makes me a Big Cat Consultant without Big Cats. But that’s almost besides the point.

A quick rundown of the game film: Thursday, very early morning, a residential area south of Berlin. Someone captures a video of a large creature moving around in a residential area south of Berlin. It’s really only a few seconds of film. The video only shows the upper half of the animal, the head is low, the rest of the body is hidden by vegetation. Behind the animal is a tree. The person who took the video posts it in a messenger. Someone else points out that this looks like a lion, or more precisely a lioness. Someone alerts the police. A bit later, the police spotted the animal (or a similar one) near the area in question. But no traces were found on the site were the animal was seen, absolutely nothing.

The police start a search for a wild animal, which might be a lion. This search that would last thirty hours, include a few hundred police men and women, and cover an area of several square kilometres in the suburban woodland. While the authorities usually are cautious in labelling the animal, the press runs with the lioness. Over Thursday and early Friday, the lion hunt of Kleinmachnow dominates the news in Germany.

I hear about it Thursday around lunchtime, from english-speaking sources on Twitter. By mid day, several experts have looked at the video and concluded that it definitely doesn’t show a lion, and might in fact be a boar. The tail is wrong, the ears are wrong, and the back has the wrong shape for a lion. Some of these experts are quoted in the mainstream media, some showed their working on their blogs or their social media accounts. Furthermore, none of the 23 lions that are officially registered in the wider area is missing, the police announced. On the other hand, these forests are well populated with boars. People hear and see them all the time.

The hunt continues. In the early afternoon, there are rumours about more sightings, perhaps even another video. The mayor of Kleinmachnow and the police chief give a press conference, out in the open. While the journalists keep asking about the lioness, the responses are still about a wild animal. Only in the last few minutes of the interview, the mayor relents and starts using ‘she’ (as in, the lioness) when talking about the animal. News stories show armoured vehicles in quiet residential streets. Policemen with automatic weapons are searching the woodland. The goal, so the official statement, is to shoot the lioness with a sedative, and only use deadly force when human lives are in danger. Residents are asked to stay inside, to keep the pets inside, and to not enter the woods.

Thursday evening around half past seven, the hunt enters a ‘hot phase’, as reported by the police. Several sightings seem to have occurred in a small bit of woodland. The area is cordoned off. Some of that area is marked as dog run on Google Maps: Hundeauslaufgebiet Düppel. Very soon Google maps shows a label next to it: Löwenauslaufgebiet Düppel. The hot phase ends without any results, the army of policemen moves on.

Some animal droppings are found in the woods nearby and are sent out for analysis. Nothing new happens overnight. Some teenagers have some fun by blasting lion roars through speakers in the neighbourhood. The police is not amused. A hair is found as well. But by late morning on the Friday, the police announces that there is no danger anymore. Two independent experts have been consulted, and both say that the original video in fact doesn’t show a lion. It shows a boar. The hunt is called off. It’s over.

Apart from the exciting spectacle, I guess, there are some lessons to be learned here. One is that most of us are really bad at interpreting blurry videos of weird stuff. Weird stuff that is real, mind you, not even including the fakes. Experts for analysing and understanding all the strange clips that we are all putting out nowadays are hard to find with the usual ‘find an expert’ routines. They are not necessarily the kind of people who show up when you are looking for experts at a university. There are obviously a lot of ‘random guys with a keyboard’, but some of them do know this stuff.

Second, we learned that private persons can have lions in some parts of Germany, including the region that surrounds Berlin. The capital itself has banned keeping lions for private persons, but with some exceptions. Recently the ministry for agriculture is working on new regulations for the keeping of wild animals, and this incident was immediately used by some politicians to put their views on this topic forward. As a reminder, in the United Kingdom, keeping big cats at home is strictly regulated. The introduction of new legislation in 1976, so the narrative, led to the release of lots of pumas and panthers which in turn led to the wild-living population of big cats in Britain. I wrote about this nice story a couple of years back, in German. Maybe if Germany were to enact stricter laws, they would get their own Big Cat Myth.

The other lesson is that the 24/7 news cycle really generates itself, it is self-maintaining. It demands to be fed, like the lion in our imagination, it needs more, always more. So, it pays people to feed him, and these people then produce news, all day long. At some point news is everywhere, and turns into reality, and a wild animal that might be a lioness becomes definitely a lioness.

We also learned how quickly a small bit of very vague evidence, if you want to call it that, can generate more bits of evidence. The moment you announce the presence of a lion, people will start seeing lions everywhere. A large shadow crossing the street. Something rumbling in a bush. A weird noise in the distance. All of this could be the lion and is reported as a lion. And so, a bit of speculation based on a blurry video becomes solid evidence, and that turns into certainty. There is a lion, no question. There is real danger. We need to take it seriously.

In general, an imagined lion always seems to be a great opportunity to see confirmation bias in action — prejudices against rich people (the ones living in Kleinmachnow) and people with migratory background (in particular, from a family clan residing nearby) are immediately confirmed. Of course that’s where the lion is coming from.

The authorities thought their reaction was appropriate, and that may be the case. Maybe the mere possibility that there could be a lion, however remote, is sufficient risk to the public to mobilize a sizable police force, to enact a local lockdown, to send hundreds of men with automatic weapons into the woods, and to fuel speculation, misinformation, and prejudice. Maybe.

People in Britain seem to have a very different way of dealing with blurry videos of animals which could in principle show a big cat. We get them every week, somewhere. Some reporter writes a story, some Big Cat Consultant is consulted, and maybe the local police has to give a comment. But apart from that it gets ignored, unless there is clearer evidence. We live in peaceful coexistence with the imagined big cats. Maybe if Berlin would have just a few more imagined big cats, the people would get used to it, as well.

In conclusion, the mayor of Kleinmachnow, in justifying the massive police presence after the hunt is called off: “The video wasn’t a fake. Something was seen. Something unusual was seen.” — Or imagined. But the difference is almost academic at this point.