Why are we able to pet a lion or cheetah cub in the first place?
Why are those baby cats not with their mothers?
What are the ramifications of such interactions for the animal?
"Rescued or orphaned" lie
Many captive wildlife facilities will tell you that their cubs are either rescued or orphaned, because the mother rejected her cubs. However, the vast majority of cubs are neither abandoned nor rescued, but simply bred on demand in one of the 300+ breeding farms in South Africa. These captive wildlife facilities breed and keep an estimated 10,000-12,000 lions, cheetahs, leopards, caracals, tigers and even ligers – a crossbreed between a lion and tiger.
Big cats in South Africa
|In the wild||In captivity|
|Lions||≈ 3,000||≈ 9,000|
|Cheetahs||1,200 - 1,700||800 - 1,000|
|* Not native to South Africa|
The lion cubs born in captivity on breeding farms are ripped away from their mothers mostly within days of birth. This means that the mother goes into estrus (becoming fertile again) much quicker and can produce two to three litters per year in captivity. Her wild cousin generally only has one litter every two to three years. It goes without saying that it is obviously incredibly traumatic for the lioness to have her cubs taken away from her, not once, not twice, but over and over again.
The same sequence of events applies to cheetahs and tigers as well.
The cubs are then hand-reared and bottle-fed by paying international volunteers, starting the habituation process of these wild animals to humans. After a few weeks, the cubs progress to a petting enclosure in the same facility or they are ‘rented’ to a facility that is open to the public. Interaction with the public reinforces the human imprint.
The paying public is often able to play, pet and cuddle lion, tiger and cheetah cubs for up to 8-10 hours per day, seven days a week, generating a significant amount of money for the facility. The persistent breeding guarantees a constant flow of cubs for the petting facilities.
Once the cubs are too big and dangerous for petting, they often graduate to a ‘walking with tourists’ activity or go back to the breeding farm. Here, the females become breeding machines themselves and the males stay in enclosures until they are mature enough to be killed for their trophy.
"Reintroduction into wild" lie
The facilities will often claim that their cubs will ultimately be reintroduced into the wild. However, most captive bred cats are not suited to the wild, as they have not learned for example how to hunt and how to deal with other predators. In addition, the potentially compromised genetics through inbreeding of captive big cats can pose a threat to the wild population. Hence, there are no examples of successful lion reintroduction programmes and there has been limited success with cheetah reintroductions.
The intensive breeding of big cats has major implications for their health and wellbeing. Cubs in the wild sleep a substantial part of the day, whereas in captivity they are poked and prodded all day. Captive lionesses are continually pregnant, and inbreeding is common, creating offspring with deformities and/or health issues.
The keeping of wild predators in enclosures as tourist attractions is cruel, distressing and unnatural. The conditions are often unsuitable with a lack of enrichment, medical care and the most basic needs, such as water and food, are often not provided. And all this for the benefit of our entertainment, to become a photo prop, and simply turn wildlife into a commodity.
Think before you pet a lion, cheetah or tiger cub, as you become part of the problem.