Territoriality in Therians

By Keller
I’m not going to explain the concept of therianthropy in this essay, since many have done so before me, and far more articulately than I could hope to emulate. I will, however, state that I do not consider myself to be primate in spirit/nature. I am a feline; panthera pardus, to be specific, which comes with its fair share of obvious differences to primate-humans, and it’s fair share of problems. The problem I’m going to address in this essay is that of solitary or non-troop instincts and territoriality, and how this manifests and therefore effects life in human society. Due to my connection to felines, specifically leopards, they will be my main reference, and most of what I shall write is based on person experience.
The majority of felines, with a few rare exceptions, are solitary in nature, coming together with others only to mate before once more heading off alone to raise offspring and to defend territory. It’s an instinctual necessity for a feline to be solitary, to rely only upon itself to meet all needs except that of reproduction wherein guards are let down, albeit briefly, in order to procreate. The two most powerful instincts in all creatures are those of survival and reproduction. For a predator living in an area where other predators hunt, where other powerful animals work to pick off prey and therefore survive, territory is vitally important. After all, not only does the survival instinct manifest in a need to hunt, to eat when perhaps others of its species are not, but also in a powerful drive to avoid all danger; to protect oneself against potential threats. And in a world full of predators and prey all fighting for their own survival, any other predator, regardless of species, is a threat. Territory therefore must be established and protected. That is the key to a predator’s survival.
Of course, other predators such as canines, and even the feline exceptions of lions, have evolved social instincts; pack instincts, finding that there is strength and efficiency in numbers. I’m no biologist. I can’t go into detail here as to why this is so, but I can draw attention to the very important difference in instincts between a solitary hunter and a pack hunter. Territory is important to both, of course, but a wide area of territory is that much harder to monitor when only a single animal maintains it.
Leopards are, I feel, best described as nervous creatures. They’re intensely solitary and shy felines due to the stresses of the environments they evolved in. Leopards not only need to defend territory against other leopards, but are forced to share their territory with the much bigger and aggressive threat of lions, hyenas; even jackals and wild dogs can pose a real threat. Lions will in fact actively search out and kill leopards and their offspring, and so panthera pardus has evolved to be a silent, stealthy, and ever-alert animal well adapted to its tough environment, both instinctually and physically.
One can see why such territorial instincts developed and yet somehow they go beyond instinctual desire; they affect all aspects of life and seem to infuse into every situation and emotion. The best example I can think of in the animal kingdom is that of captive leopards; one might learn in time that there are no rival predators in the vicinity, yet will become fiercely protective of its enclosure, even towards its human captors who are, for all intents and purposes, just very large primates that a leopard would see as potential prey. As a human with a feline inside, a feline spirit, things become even more interesting.
For me, territory is a huge issue and yet so integral to my nature that I never notice it until someone reacts to it in an obvious (usually negative) manner. I am keenly aware of scents and one of the first things I learn about a new person in my life is their unique smell. I will identify them through this smell, and have been known to become greatly confused and unsettled when those close to me change their perfume or aftershave. Suddenly nothing smells quite right in my perceived territory anymore, and I’m forced to adjust to a new scent that I didn’t condone or help imprint there. Similarly, I am acutely unsettled by stranger’s scents on my belongings and therefore in my territory, and cannot feel safe and relaxed once more until all traces of that foreign scent have been eradicated or drowned out by my own. An extreme example of this is how I am unable to sleep in my bed if a new scent is on the sheets. Once someone new sat on my bed for just a few moments, which I had obviously forgotten about before I finally crawled in to sleep, but I picked up on the foreign scent immediately and had to roll repeatedly over my covers until all traces of it were gone. I felt deeply satisfied and fiercely proud once this was accomplished. I couldn’t rationally tell you why.
Territory not only includes belongings and marked areas, but people too. Despite my solitary nature as a leopard, I have been brought up and continue to live in a human society; one with a troop mentality, and therefore naturally I feel a need for companionship and love; to share with other living beings. However, I am unable to cope with people for prolonged amounts of time unless those people are much loved and trusted individuals. My group of friends is extremely small but I trust each and every one of them implicitly. They are my people, and because of this they have become part of what leopard feels is hers. I am fiercely protective of them, very much like a mother leopard with cubs, and when other people who I don’t know interact with them my initial instinct is extremely defensive. They are mine and anyone else who wants involvement with them are encroaching on my territory.
This begs the question then as to whether what I feel at such moments is territoriality or jealousy.
I’ve been thinking about this for a very long time, and I can safely say that such reactions are instinctual territorial actions and completely out of my control. This does not mean, however, that I now have an easy get out clause for any poor behaviour on my part, or indeed have an excuse to ask too much of my partner and friends; to treat them like possessions.
It’s hard to explain the difference between jealousy and territorial instincts/reactions, but it certainly exists. Jealousy is wanting something that you do not, or cannot, have. It’s usually based in fear, insecurity, pain, or selfishness. A moment of jealousy for me might be hearing that my partner, who I am in a long-distance relationship with, got to spend the whole weekend with his other lover. I want to be her at such moments because I can’t be; because I’m away from my partner. Jealousy can even manifest at hearing that he touched another completely innocently simply because I can’t do that currently due to distance. I can recognize when I’m being jealous and therefore I am able to think it through until I can be rational once more. My jealous moments are fleeting because I trust my partner and because I can analyze such feelings. Through such an analysis, I reach a solution that I am happy with.
My territorial reactions are the complete opposite; they can be sudden, fierce, and I usually have no idea I am reacting in such a way until it is pointed out to me (or until I have physically reached and touched my “aggressor”), because it takes the rational mind some time to catch up to purely instinctual reactions. Equally they can be subtle, but they are always aggressive. Leopard is defensive and ready to fight for what is hers. I cannot rationalize them. I can’t logically dissect them and find a way to stop them from happening; it would be like asking me not to breath, or not to feel the need to procreate. I can, however, upon realizing that I am having a territorial reaction, attempt to control myself. Physically this is often fairly easy, but emotionally I can’t at all, and believe me when I say I have tried. If I repress such instincts I end up fundamentally unhappy and very depressed.
At such moments I am not thinking. It’s not as if leopard suddenly manifests and clearly presents the thought of “mine! Protect it!” I simply react much faster than my rational mind can keep up with. Even attempting to reason with any representation of leopard inside is pointless since leopard can NOT understand how her food, her person, her offspring, and her mate has anything to do with any other creature. She is simply not wired to think that way; not instinctually capable of working, living, and reacting suitably in a group.
It’s hard living with such instincts. I find myself ill at ease often when around new people, particularly if they’ve entered my territory, usually at the consent of another since I share a house with family and a flat with other students. I have been known to feel physically sick when I have the company of another forced onto me, and will either slink away submissively, or grow incredibly defensive until the other person leaves due to fear or discomfort. I unconsciously patrol my living area, rubbing against furniture, and always I am scenting the air, making sure no one else has been leaving their scent where it isn’t welcome, and become panicked if a large group of people force their way into any area of my territory. Similarly, if I have to interact with many people on a daily basis I can become painfully withdrawn, which is usually accompanied with mild to severe depression. I feel overwhelmed by their presence and unable to defend my territory and myself. This is not a nice feeling. Not at all.
Relationship-wise, I’m sure the problem is obvious. I’m currently in a polyamorous relationship, which probably isn’t the best idea in the world considering, but I love my partner and rationally I can understand and appreciate why he is polyamorous, and therefore I am very happy with how things are. Leopard, however, wonders what the hell is going on and demands to know why another gets to touch and interact with her mate. I wish I were being dramatic when I say that I cannot promise that if I witness his other lover touching him in an intimate manner, I won’t go for her throat. I simply don’t know how I will respond, though past experience warns me that it most likely won’t be pretty, or indeed rational.
A lot of the territorial instincts and reactions are so deeply ingrained in my being, my subconscious, and my emotions that I am struggling to explain them. The very reason I decided to write this essay was to perhaps let other non-primate therians with strong territorial instincts know that they are not alone, but at the same time this essay is pointless, since I cannot help you, nor can I help myself.
I continually try and rationalize something that cannot be rationalized, that cannot be cured, and can barely be worked with. I struggle with instincts that cause me great difficulties, that place barriers between myself and others, and which others tell me are unnatural. Well, unnatural for a human anyway. I have even been punished and scorned by fellow therians for acting like the animal I am inside.
This is not what I would choose if given the choice. I’m sure it’s not something you would choose either. But the fact of the matter is that this is ultimately who we are. No bullshit, no drama, no games; just pure instincts, the instincts of a feline with very different priorities to those of this human world. I cannot tell you how to turn them off, I cannot stop myself from reacting instinctually to various stimuli, but what I can do is understand as best I can why I react the way I do. And most importantly of all, I can learn never to use such reactions as an excuse for extreme or unsavory behaviour. Although I might be overwhelmed by the need to rip into someone’s throat and the softness of their belly, I am also human and rational enough to control myself. I cannot control my instincts but I most certainly can control my actions once my rational mind has caught up.
I am feline. I am leopard. That makes me different from other humans; makes me react differently, and yes, causes problems. But I can learn to work and live with myself, to understand that I am different and forgive myself for sometimes acting in a way that causes difficulties for myself and my loved ones. I wouldn’t change who I am, and I shouldn’t have to. Neither should you. Leopard, of course, doesn’t care; she’s living as she should and listening to her instincts. The hard part for me is getting this human mind with all its human socialization to listen to her, to stop resisting, and therefore allow myself to work through these mad jumble of emotions that are caused by ignoring and fighting that fundamental part of myself that tells me how to act in any possible situation.