Walking with big cats
These walking with carnivores encounters are the next step after cub petting, when at about six months the cuddly cubs are not so cuddly anymore. Their claws and teeth are growing, as is their strength.
The paying public can walk and interact with these slouchy teenagers until they reach the age of about 12-18 months, at which point the lions and tigers become too dangerous for walking activities and are “retired” from any tourism interactions.
Dark side of the walking scam
These retired big cats generally return to a holding facility, where they are kept in small overcrowded and often filthy camps until such time that they are mature enough to enter the next stage of the value chain.
This is when some of the cats are sold to breeders, where the females become part of the breeding cycle producing more cute cubs for the petting industry, and with others going to zoos and private collectors. The remaining lions and tigers will ultimately be killed in canned hunts or for the lion bone trade.
With the lid well and truly lifted on the canned hunting industry, many tourist wildlife interaction providers will now claim that their animals are not sold to canned hunters or the lion bone trade. They allege that they keep them or reintroduce them into the wild.
Let’s do some simple maths. Some cub petting facilities have as many as 10 cubs at the same time. The cubs need to be replaced every 6 months and after about one year they also retire from walking activities. So, the facility starts with 10 cubs, after year one they have 20 cubs, 40 after two years, and the pride has grown to 60 animals after just three years. These big cats no longer make money for the facility but are still a major business expense in terms of holding space, enclosure fencing, food, and medical care… not an efficient and sustainable business model.
Captive-bred and habituated lions are near impossible to release and cheetahs have an extremely low success rate in attempted reintroductions into the wild. Tigers obviously can’t be released into the wild in South Africa, as they are an exotic species.
Ambassador species - Education or Entertainment?
Many adult cheetahs become so-called ambassador species, animals that are exploited for monetary gain under the guise of performing an educational role by raising awareness of the plight of the species in the wild. These ambassador cheetahs are often used as photo props, taken to schools, and even rented for corporate events, fashion shoots and weddings.
Do we need to interact this closely with a cheetah to achieve the much-needed awareness around conservation issues? Is it ethical to use these sentient beings to perform for us? Do we label an activity as educational, which is simply entertainment?
Habituating teenage predators can be challenging and even dangerous, which is why the process frequently involves the use of sticks. With fear and pain, domination over these predators is created and the sole reason why paying visitors are also given sticks on their walks.
On a daily basis, these big cats are exposed to unnatural conditions and interactions with people exacerbates their stress. The enclosures, where these youngsters live when not on walks with paying visitors, are typically bare and lack enrichment.
Although these captive predators are habituated, their wild instinct and unpredictable temperament remains. There are no adequate safety regulations in place in most establishments to protect tourists and facility staff. Over the years, this has led to numerous incidents of predators attacking humans with most of these attacks occurring inside the camps during these big cat encounters.
Of the 37 big cat incidents reported in the media, 28 attacks led to injuries and 12 people were killed. Most of the fatalities were due to lion attacks, but overall 60% of the incidents involved captive lions, 38% cheetahs, and 2% tigers. Predators don’t discriminate by age or gender as the reported attacks show – they involved 13 adult women, 18 adult men, and nine children.
Think before you walk with lions, cheetahs or tigers, as you contribute directly to the canned lion hunting industry and lion bone trade.