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Petting a lion might make you feel good, but how ethical are these interactions? By Janine Stephen.

Volunteering in the Western Cape

This tears me apart. I am at an orphaned animal ‘rehab’ centre on a private reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. The teen serval has played with my shoelaces; I’ve gazed at an orange-eyed young cheetah. It is a kind of bliss to be so close to animals which are beyond beautiful; near mythical. But then we enter the leopard cub’s enclosure and despite the teen cat’s slinky grace, it feels wrong.

Whenever his handler is distracted, he keeps hunkering down to stalk people, muscles rippling under his spotted pelt. He is a few short months off being uncontrollable. And then what? Will he be released to live out his days in wilderness, forever free? A leopard with no fear of humans? I can’t see it happening, ‘rehabilitation’ talk or not.

Animal encounters have boomed in South Africa, catering to people who are hungry to touch and love wild animals plus snap a selfie while they’re at it. Tourists can walk with cheetahs all over the place, or give them a good stroking (the Endangered Wildlife Trust has noticed a huge growth in such encounters, particularly in the Free State and Western Cape). They can ride elephants like kings; or sit on their knees, or kick a ball to them.

They can swim with dolphins and whales and whale sharks and sharks (black-tips or tigers, the great whites require cages). Oh, and cage dive with crocs, in Oudtshoorn. The tourist pays for the privilege. Now, there have always been kind-hearted humans lavishing care on orphaned and injured wild animals, but it’s different when healthy animals are bred or sold to spend a life in captivity, to make someone a profit.

The Campaign Against Canned Hunting says lion cub petting and walking with young lions is just a money-spinning offshoot of the hunting industry. The stress cubs face through endless human interaction is bad enough. ‘Wild animals like lions and tigers have inherent natural behaviours, and exposure to unnatural conditions and human crowds and handling exacerbates their stress,’ says manager of the NSPCA Wildlife Protection Unit, Ainsley Hay.

Cubs also require ‘large periods of undisturbed sleep’ a rarity in any public facility where the animals are ‘expected to work every day’. But reintroducing captive-bred lions to the wild is near impossible on any scale. One ‘walk with lions’ outfit north of our borders boasted of a multiple-stage rehabilitation programme. In reality, it had not sent a lion back to real wilderness in eight years, although plenty lived in large fenced areas.

There are no conservation benefits to this, yet these outfits hoover up donations and well-meaning tourist cash. And so petted lion cubs (or tigers), sent out walking with tourists as teenagers, are often sold to hunting outfits as adults. Sounds crazy? In September, the Eastern Cape MEC for Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism confirmed that from 2008, the Seaview Predator Park in Port Elizabeth, for example, had sent 22 lions to Craddock hunting reserve Tam Safaris.

The Herald reported there had been 86 lion hunts at Tam in six years, although Tam claimed the lions from Seaview were used only for breeding. Tam Safaris exported 738kg of lion bones and teeth to Vietnam in 2012.

animal encounter, cheetah

Photo by Rich Pearce.


Wild animals in captivity

‘Captive-bred large predators in this country become breeding machines to make more cubs for the petting industry, or they become trophies shot by hunters, or a skeleton exported to Asia for traditional medicine use,’ says the NSPCA’s Hay. The cheetah encounter industry is also a problem. EWT cheetah metapopulation co-ordinator Vincent van der Merwe says that in the last seven years, 27 percent of the cheetah moved off wild reserves were sold into captivity.

There are as many as 350 to 550 cheetah in captivity as opposed to 318 on 48 small reserves (excluding the Kruger and Kgalagadi). ‘The industry poses a serious threat to the [wild] cheetah population,’ Van der Merwe says. Many animal encounters can’t be condoned: dolphins and orcas in aquaria, for example, turning tricks for a living. Circuses are out. And I’m opposed to elephant encounters, as they inevitably require training.

With this comes the possibility of abuse (the pictures of wounds on babies belonging to the Knysna Elephant Park, inflicted during training in the Eastern Cape, are horrible reminders. Although the incident allegedly dates back to 2008, the story only broke in 2014). Being close to an elephant should be enough of an experience without subjecting it to human will.

And yet, and yet. Who hasn’t seen a child’s face light up in close proximity to an animal they have never seen? Can we say rehabilitation centres, sanctuaries, zoos or encounters should never exist – even the best of them? That humans have no right to display animals for education or profit? Some agree that people have no right, but do they have a responsibility to aid creatures harmed by human activities, from speeding cars, to pesticides or widespread habitat loss? A choice between conserving habitat with an endangered animal in it and shipping said animal to a captive breeding programme is a no-brainer. But sometimes there is no choice; no safe habitat left. So: a toughie.

There’s a bloke I trust on this stuff, although he’s dead now. He was an ornery part-scientist, part-renegade, and for all that he adored animals, he was never overly sentimental. Gerald Durrell did much to save such under-the-radar creatures as the Madagascan teal (not a flashy bird), the giant jumping rat, and the Mauritian pink pigeon, of which only 10 were left in the wild.

Durrell’s Jersey Zoo (now called the Durrell Wildlife Park) embodied ideals worth carrying over to any outfit offering any kind of animal encounter. Here they are: the primary reason they exist is to act as a reserve for endangered species that need help to survive in the wild. Education is a huge bonus: if animals have to be captured, we are duty-bound to learn more about them. But the end aim is to reintroduce the species to its natural habitat as soon as possible.

Pure entertainment, you’ll notice, is out. And that’s how it should be. It’s when a factory line of cute babies is needed to keep visitors streaming in that abuse can and will happen. This doesn’t mean selling tickets to see a bird with a broken wing or a former pet tiger that would otherwise have been shot is bad. Inviting the public in to help fund good work makes sense.

And I can’t brush off the educational spin-offs. When I was a kid, I went on a bird identification course at the local zoo and it ignited a fascination with birds and beasts that has never deserted me. Some critics say that if zoos and sanctuaries teach children anything, ‘it’s that imprisoning animals for our own entertainment is acceptable’. Not so. It is as likely to result in a commitment to seeing wildlife thrive and survive away from cages and people.

The key lesson underlying every encounter must be this: caring about animals means interacting with them on their terms, not ours. And that lucky, fleeting encounters in the wild are immeasurably more satisfying than a few fake strokes.

Encounter culture


But I wanna stroke a cheetah…

Questions worth asking before buying a ticket

1. Are people interacting with the animals to be rehabilitated?

True rehabilitation centres won’t allow visitors, says Chris Mercer of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting, as the animals habituated to people cannot be released into the wild.

Some centres use ‘ambassador’ animals for education (such as a three-legged caracal, to warn against gin traps). But these animals should be unreleasable due to injury or prior habituation. Public access areas should be completely distinct from the rehab area. If not, animals are not being rehabilitated for release.

2. What is the value of any education or breeding programmes the outfit offers?

‘There is absolutely no ethical or conservation-based reason to breed large predators in captivity in South Africa,’ says the NSPCA’s Wildlife Protection Unit.

‘These animals… are imprinted and would never survive in the wild, or they are inbred and their genetics are diluted.’ The NSPCA points to a High Court case between the South African Predator Breeders Association and the Department of Environmental Affairs that confirmed that captive lion breeding ‘has nothing to do with conservation’. The NSPCA also refutes claims that captive breeding can be educational.

‘People can learn far more about wild animals by watching a documentary showing the animal’s natural behaviour in their natural habitats than looking at an animal in a cage, or playing with a baby animal.’

3. Would the animals be there if there were fewer public visitors?

If there is no demand for cub petting, from the public, cubs will not be removed from lionesses unnecessarily, says the NSPCA.

4. What happens to animals born here once they grow up?

‘Captive-bred large predators become breeding machines to make more cubs for the petting industry, or they become trophies shot by hunters, or a skeleton exported to Asia for traditional medicine use,’ says the NSPCA.

5. Are people allowed to touch the animals?

Are such encounters ‘staged’ (the animal has no choice) or by chance (the animal is curious enough to approach)? Many petted animals are required to be available to people paying to do so, and have no seclusion area to retreat to if they’ve had enough, say the NSPCA: completely unethical.


Ethical options for wildlife encounters

Wildlife Act Offers volunteer opportunities with research project in reserves in Zululand; endorsed by the WWF. Projects include monitoring wild dogs and leopard.

SANCCOB Just about all these rescued seabirds really do go back home. Mandated by the South African government and registered with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Second Chance Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre Animals to be rehabilitated are not on public display. Supported by Mpumalanga’s parks.

Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre Breeds and releases cheetah and is accredited by Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Also a member of WESSA.

Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre Has bred and released over 160 serval into the wild.

*Note: certain of these centres may have ‘ambassador’ animals and encounters.

For a list of organisations that do not allow cub petting, and discussions on ethics, see the Facebook group Volunteers in Africa Beware.

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issu of Getaway Magazine.

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  • Talya

    Brilliant article…breaks my heart that people think it’s okay to ride elephants and pet lions. I have been an intern at SANCCOB for a year and I can honestly say that every bird gets released back into the wild UNLESS they cannot take care of themselves or hunt for food due to an amputated foot/flipper/wing or a missing eye or if humans have stolen them from the wild and raised them as chicks – they will then “imprint” and associate humans with food. We will have to keep these flying birds and African Penguins as they will NOT hunt for food but rather wait to be fed by humans and will starve if they were not living with us. People need to understand the difference between a rehabilitation centre that only takes in sick and injured animals and uses ambassador animals to educate people on how they can help, and a petting zoo where animals are raised for human entertainment and then shot down when they’re too old to perform.

    Thanks for shedding some light…hopefully people will pay attention!

  • A superb article. Thank you Janine Stephen and Getaway Magazine!

  • Thanks for shedding light on this practice which leads to much cruelty for many wild animals. You might be interested in the article regarding my amazement yet concern while visiting a cheetah center recently.

  • Janine

    The same goes for primate “rehabilitation” Centres who allow volunteers they are not true rehab centres, as can be seen by some who have more than 600 baboons permanently in cages “life in prison for these poor creatures” They have the wild baboons teasing them from outside the cages as this centre is in a private game reserve with wild baboons. True rehabs create troups with minimal human interface and then release.

  • A bit worrying that Janine’s article info is terribly outdated, she visited the “rehab” centre in KZN perhaps 2.5 years ago, when we were just up and running…

    Pity she didn’t follow up to give her readers some fresh new info. Then she would’ve seen that this place is (and was since the beginning) a cheetah breeding project. And the first and only project in KZN focusing on breeding and releasing cheetahs. Most other projects that offer encounters are just tourist traps, but generalising can be very risky, even for uninformed journalists. In fact, our first cheetah release is due now any day, just as soon as the permits are issued. We will also invite a trustworthy and wildlife educated journalist to capture the day as it happens.

    Some of the places on “good lists” actually only breed cheetahs to sell to zoos. They also offer back to back tours with guests. We have one tour per day with a limited number of people allowed on tour. We are the only project (amongst all other sanctuaries, rehabilitation centres etc) that actually train our cheetah to hunt from a young age. Reason being? Our cheetahs are not up for sale, we do not allow any trading. Our cheetahs will not end up in zoos to make thousands of dollars trading with them, like so many other projects. We have already successfully released many other smaller cats and antelope into the Nambiti Big 5 Reserve.

    Captive bred Cheetah have been released into the wild for many decades. Even ambassador cheetah can successfully live a free life in the wild. Proper re-wilding will be vital to make this happen, hence our dedication towards our re-wilding concept. The big (and at this stage almost impossible) challenge of re-wilding and releasing bigger cats like lions should not be confused or compared to the releasing of cheetah.

    Any Tom Dick and Harry can write about this subject, but to get the right facts and actual proof, you have to either visit these places, and then keep in contact with them via social media, stay in touch with their passionate contributions towards nature, and only then can opinions be formed and trusted.

    To be more informed and educated feel free to visit us, or follow us on facebook.

    Kwa Cheetah facebook:

  • Mark Witney

    What is it with humans that we feel this need to tame/hold/touch/control wild animals? Why on earth can we not accept and appreciate that they are wild and observe them from a safe distance, in their natural habitats, doing what they do naturally? Even a fleeting glance of a lion hunting in the wild is surely more interesting than touching a tame cub in a pen?
    Whether it is performing elephants in circuses, lion cubs in ‘petting zoos’, walking with lions, touching a sedated animal in a ‘vet safari’ operation, having wild animals as pets – it’s all the same – a bizarre human need to ‘have dominion’ over all animals and people will pay good money to do so. Sick really!

  • charlotte Collins

    No look on a childs face is worth the explotation of any animal
    Wild animals should not have humans interaction .Zoos,aquariums ,petting zoos,circus’s and any rehabilitation centre that allows animals interaction with the public is a no no ,its exploitation and we dont have the right !

  • I am pleased with the sentiment of this blog, people need to know what they are supporting. I work at C.A.R.E. where we take in orphaned and abused baboons to rehabilitate and release back into the wild. I have been the proud human facilitator of many orphaned infants and also observed the release of troops back into the wild. Stephen Munro took over the centre as Managing Director in 2012 and the centre is presently flourishing (all staff except the local African staff are presently unpaid as we are focusing all funds on the centres developments). Stephen has the experience of 6 troop releases under his belt and spends 24/7 at the release site for 3-6 months collecting scientific data and facilitating optimal survival rates of the released baboons (however long it takes to ensure the baboons are wild, scared of humans and thriving). It truly works and is the most incredible journey to observe, though setting an animal “free” is not easy; living wild is tough and that is why Stephen spends so long with them. C.A.R.E. is not open to the public and has a “quarantine” period for incoming volunteers (to protect our baboons from any coughs/colds humans can bring in and also ensuring no “petting” of the tourism kind happens). Additionally, there is a minimum length of stay for volunteers which help with the hand-rearing of infant orphans (this ensures emotional stability for infants as their rehabilitation/well-being is priority). We need volunteers to facilitate the healthy growth and integrations of the orphaned infants (there are not enough funds to pay salaries to all the staff needed and fund the centre). Volunteers assist with ensuring the infants are either bonded to a baboon ‘surrogate’ or into a troop undergoing rehabilitation for release. The volunteer program is the only major source of funding to cover the day-to-day running too as C.A.R.E. is a non-profit and does not “make” money to line anyone’s pockets, only to care for one of South Africa’s “unglamorous” animals (although in my opinion the best!). We do have seven “unreleasable” individuals who are simply wonderful and well taken care of; elderly baboons that were kept previously in laboratories for example, but the rest are 100% releasable (although 50% of the population aren’t quite ready; too young). Primate rehabilitation is long and complex. The troop must be cohesive and thankfully the methods of rehabilitation and release work. Our founder who died tragically in 2012 was the first person in the world to form a troop of hand-raised baboons and release them successfully. After a year old there is no human contact with the animals as they are then at an age where they should have been successfully integrated into a troop. However, an infant primate does need a human facilitator to get it to the stage where it is physically able to be bonded to a baboon “surrogate” as she will of course not be able to produce milk. Therefore, an amount of time is required with humans in a peer-rearing setting to assist with their growth, emotional well-being and integrations. A large primate like the baboon is very much like a great ape or human and has a long “childhood” and needs emotional security for it to become a well-balanced adult, therefore an infant orphan is completely helpless and needs a helping hand.
    C.A.R.E. has a brand-new clinic funded recently by IPPL (the world renowned International Primate Protection League) and vets come from all over the world to assist along with volunteers from various backgrounds. We are mid-way through building an Education Area where by our unreleasable baboons will be housed, this will enable us to offer better education and whilst there will be zero contact from any visitors it will help us to hopefully get to the root of why orphans are coming to the centre and halt the flow. However, for now we remain closed to the public as rehabilitation for release is our priority. You can read more about C.A.R.E. with Blogs on contraception/releases etc. on the website; or on our Facebook Page;
    It is very important to do your home work, and I can say hand-on-heart that C.A.R.E. is an incredible place with sound ethics – nothing at C.A.R.E. is done to make a profit. We certainly need help though to get these beautiful animals through the rehabilitation process and back into the wild (it is a mammoth task!) and welcome anyone interested in helping to get in touch; [email protected].

  • Second Chance Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre I believe has been closed down and some of their animals were sent to DIY Wild in the same province (not associated, separate organisation). It may be worth checking.

  • soundchain

    I’m in a pickle… See, I visited Australia Zoo recently and had a photo taken with a tiger. They only allow one encounter per day and they change the tigers so its a lot less exposure. Also, this zoo is part of the Sumatran conservation efforts, they have rangers out in Sumatra and they use the donations to fund their wildlife warriors out in the field, or at very least, they have an on site wildlife hospital where money goes.
    So I think it depends… Tiger Temple is a definite no no but maybe Australia zoo is OK?

  • This great ape and big cat encounters can WorkForConsetvation
    How? 1million $ into wildlife conservation. The $ raised to Africa for lions,
    chimps,gorillas leopards and cheetah. In India Kaziranga &Corbett tiger
    reserves. In Asia we contributed $ to tigers,orangutans fish cats and leopard
    projects. The million $ contributed came from fees payed by guests to meet big
    cats their cubs, and great apes + other animal ambassadors. All zoo animals R
    watched cradle-grave by USDA. Proof? 30yrs U need cash to do the work and the animal ambassadors make it happen. The TV tells the tale the public likes animals w people not out in the wild . what are u going to do to get the 1 billion people in the west to help wildlife if they are not cute, cool and cuddly. Nascar NFL nation on Prozac need a different kind of stimulation and its not a vegan world order or any kind of animals only sanctuary scamtuary

  • Diana

    I was wondering what is your general opinion on the Cango Wildlife Ranch in Oudtshoorn. They claim to have a captive bredding cheetah program, which to me sounded wrong even before coming across this article. They also seem to offer animal interactions that intrude on the animals quite a lot. Yet, I haven’t been able to find enough information out there to form an informed opinion.

    • heidi

      a big no!

  • Liz Toomey

    I totally disagree with you. I think these programs promote awareness and therefore educate lay people on conservation efforts.