You can find many places around the world where people are allowed to cuddle and/or take pictures with wild animals. Sadly, unaware travellers are misled, and believe that interacting with these animals is helping the animals and even more so, that it benefits the conservation of the species. Travellers may volunteer their time, and help financially support such venues believing that they are supporting a worthy cause.
Most visitors are unaware of the associated animal suffering taking place at these places. South Africa´s lion breeding farms provide such an example. These farms continuously breed lions multiple times a year, creating major animal welfare issues for the cubs and the parent animals.
The lie of 'rescued or orphaned' cubs
Many captive wildlife facilities will tell you that their cubs were either rescued or orphaned, because the mother rejected her cubs. However, the vast majority of cubs were neither abandoned nor rescued, but simply bred on demand in one of the 300+ breeding farms in South Africa.
Amongst that large number of captive wildlife facilities an estimated 10,000-12,000 lions, cheetahs, leopards, caracals, tigers and even ligers – a crossbreed between a lion and tiger, are being kept and bred under horrible animal welfare conditions.
The truth: mothers are breeding machines
Lion cubs that are born in captivity on breeding farms are ripped away from their mothers mostly within days of birth. This means that the mother goes into oestrus (becoming fertile again) much quicker and can therefore produce two to three litters per year in captivity. Her wild relative generally only has one litter every two to three years. It goes without saying that it is incredibly traumatic for lionesses to have their cubs taken away, not once, not twice, but over and over again. The same sequence of events applies to tigers.
A persistent breeding guarantees a constant flow of cubs for petting facilities and their visitors.
The lie about 'reintroduction into wild'
Some breeding farms claim that the young animals were bred so that they can be released into the wild and thus contribute towards the conservation of lions. However, no breeding farm or likewise so-called 'conservation project' has ever proven that any of their animals had been released into the wild.
Hand-reared cubs that have grown on breeding farms will never be able to be released into the wild. First, their health and behaviour would not allow it. These cubs lack crucial nutrients, socialisation, and learning behaviours that only their mother could offer them. Second, intensive breeding leads to inbreeding and causes serious genetic and medical dysfunctions. In addition, these cubs are not taught to fear people like their wild conspecifics. Because they were raised by hand, they no longer see a threat in humans. This makes them very unsuitable candidates for life in the wild and an easy prey within the canned hunting industry.
The truth: it is an entertainment industry
When cubs are older than six months, they become too big for tourists and volunteers to cuddle with. At this stage, tourists and volunteers can go on walking tours with them. When lions outgrow this stage and become too dangerous to walk with, they are traded or kept as breeding animals. It is very likely that these animals end up in the 'canned hunting' industry.
The lie: 'do good as a volunteer'
Not only tourists are misled, but even volunteer projects have also been set up by these breeding farms. For several weeks or months, volunteers work on the farms and they usually have to pay quite a lot of money to join these projects. The farms respond to the feeling of volunteers who want to do something good for animals and conservation. Unfortunately, they are misled time and time again. These types of projects have nothing to do with the protection of the species or the individual animals. Young lions suffer on these breeding farms. Someone who volunteers at one of these breeding farms or wants to gain working experience, indirectly supports the gruesome lion industry – even if they do not mean it or realise it.
Welfare implications: Behavioral disorders and poor development
The intensive breeding of big cats has major implications for their health and wellbeing. Captive lionesses are continually pregnant, and inbreeding is common, creating offspring with deformities and/or health issues.
Cubs in the wild sleep a substantial part of the day, whereas in captivity they are poked and prodded all day. 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.
Cuddling and playing with young lions and tigers causes a lot of stress for the animals. The cubs need rest and contact with (older) members of their species. Intensive contact with (strange) people and the often poor conditions in which the animals are kept, lead to serious behavioural disorders and poor mental and physical development.
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.