Next time you’re tempted to pet a lion cub…
June 1, 2015
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Update, 1 June 2015:

The recent Lion Park tragedy makes me so angry.  I can’t even explain how outraged I am that these human-predator interactions continue and that are still promoted by our tourism industry. It’s no coincidence that places like the Lion Park have had multiple attacks on visitors.
Of course we can lay blame on the tourists for having their car window open, and the guide for being irresponsible, but at the end of the day, how can the park management educate visitors that lions are potentially dangerous predators if they let people cuddle lion cubs?  Genuine lion sanctuaries are not involved in captive breeding and do not offer petting opportunities.
Ainsley Hay, manager of the NSPCA’s wildlife protection unit, says:
 “Places like the lion park are no good for the visitors or the animals… Places that keep lions in captivity claim to be doing it for education and conservation purposes but if you can’t even educate visitors to keep windows closed how are you educating them?” (Source: ENCA).


Why you shouldn’t be petting predators…

Yes, even the cute baby lions.

CC Image courtesy possumgirl2 on Flickr

CC Image courtesy possumgirl2 on Flickr


My folks have a pic of me as a 2 year old, smiling as I happily played with a lion cub. Were they crazy? Admittedly, the concept of responsible tourism wasn’t around in the 80’s, but did they not realize that a lion is  a predator? Predator babies are not domestic animals, and should not be exposed to humans.

Of course they’re cute and cuddly but do we really have to pet them?

I visited a lion park in Gauteng some years back when a foreign friend I was hosting at the time suggested it.  Though I felt uneasy as I took pictures of my friend petting the baby lions, I couldn’t resist a little pet myself.  I wondered how the park could always ensure a steady supply of baby lions and what the future of these  lion cubs was.

I am very uncomfortable with the concept of  lion cub petting zoos and volunteer projects that masquerade as conservation programmes.  Sadly this has become a valuable industry with little oversight or regulation. The concept of petting a baby predator is often sold under the guises of conservation education, research, even responsible tourism. Next time you think about petting a baby lion, think about the future of a predator that has been socialised with humans.

This post is long overdue as this issue has been bothering me for a while. I know its controversial but its time to raise awareness on this issue.  A friend shared the article below by the South African NSPCA on the issue of humans interacting with predator babies. It raises many ethical issues surrounding lion breeding projects.


Human Interaction With Predator Babies


Every year thousands of people interact not only with lion cubs but numerous other wild cat babies such as tigers, cheetahs, leopard and caracal but seldom ask what happens to these cubs when they grow too big for the facilities to manage them.

Most game reserve establishments are not interested in having hand raised lions on their property because not only have they have lost their fear of humans and pose a threat to people but there is also the risk of introducing diseases as well as undesirable genetic faults into the wild lion population. Hand raised lions are difficult to reintroduce not only to the wild but to other lions as well.

The reality in South Africa is that we have no more space for lions.

Free roaming wild lions are threatened due to habitat destruction and loss of protected areas for them to live in and not for the want of the animals themselves. Unfortunately the lion breeding projects in South Africa are purely money driven and have precious little to do with conservation. The lions in these projects are genetically compromised due to excessive in breeding and have little to no value for genetic conservation even if there was space to release them.

There is substantial evidence to suggest that these animals are often sold or returned to a predator breeding facility from which they are often sold on as trophies into the very lucrative canned hunting industry which has thrived in South Africa in the last 12 years. Some are sold overseas into animal collections where, due to ignorance or apathy, their nutritional, environmental and psychological requirements are not met. The animals that remain are often condemned to spend the rest of their lives in inadequately small enclosures with substandard care being used as breeding machines for the next generation of photo cubs.

Some may argue that there is educational value in allowing people to handle wild animals. However this kind of education provides the incorrect message that wild animals exist for human entertainment – that they can be petted like domestic animals, and that they have value only in captivity and not in their natural habitats.

Cubs are often taken away from their mothers to stimulate faster reproduction and so keep up a constant supply of petting lions. Visitors pay to pet the animal and have their photograph taken with it, and either do not consider the animal’s situation and what will happen to it when it grows up, or they assume that there is a conservation effort associated with petting lions. The NSPCA therefore urges members of the public to carefully consider the long term implications for these animals.

The best activities for wildlife lovers are the experiences out in the natural bush. To experience and appreciate wild animals in the environment where they belong is the only way that you can guarantee that no animals are being compromised for your pleasure.
CC Image courtesy Ganesh Raghunathan on Flickr

Lion cub – Serengeti (CC Image courtesy Ganesh Raghunathan on Flickr)


I hope this made you think about the ethics of tourism and wildlife. Please share this article and raise awareness on the issue. Lets support our national parks and experience wild animals in the wild, where they belong, and not in enclosures touted as conservation projects.

About author

Meruschka Govender

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There are 31 comments

  • Mary Tebje says:

    From another age, but I too have a photo of my mother having tea with the chimps at London Zoo – complete with heavy chain around the animals neck and a set of teeth two inches from her little face!

    Your excellent piece highlights this sorry state of affairs, and increasingly more visitors and animals will be harmed in the pursuit of these mis-guided business models.

    • mzansigirl says:

      Thanks Mary. Its so sad, as these unethical business models have become the norm, and people are too scared to talk about it for fear of tainting the industry.

      • K.A. Foulk says:

        I found your article very interesting, educational, and sad. I’m only now learning what happens when the “animal shows” are over and the crowds go home. Like many others, I thought the animals in the zoos and water parks were safe and happy. I was living in a fool’s paradise. I know what happens now and it disgusts me. We have the same problem with people feeding wild bears and alligators. They’re basically signing the animal’s death warrant by making them associate humans as a way to get food or be food. We must protect the existence of these animals, from A to Z. They have a right to live and be free without human interference. They should be born, live, and die free.

        • Meruschka Govender says:

          Any interaction with humans and wild animals disturbs me. I think zoos can have an educational purpose, provided the animals are kept in good conditions, but I really despise this sort of animal interaction that is sold as conservation. The sad thing is that once these animals have been socialised with humans, they can never be free from them 🙁

  • Heather says:

    I totally agree and I’m glad you wrote this post. I saw people petting lion cubs when I was at the Lion and Rhino park in the Cradle of Humankind a couple of years ago, and I found it very disturbing. I avoid those places like the plague now.

    • mzansigirl says:

      Me too! Sadly, so many locals and tourists support these type of places, as they are misinformed as to the conservation value of these ‘parks’.

  • Fiver says:

    Thanks for that article. I had no idea about the fake conservation angle when I went to the Cheetah project near Jozi a few years ago. It all seemed so plausible when they explained their breeding efforts. Are all conservation projects like this, or are there any serious ones?

    Anyway, good info, I will share.


    • mzansigirl says:

      There are definitely some serious projects out there that are doing good conservation work, however there are many that are not as responsible as they purport to be. The conservation ‘industry’ is very loosely regulated on the issue of ‘research’. I don’t know about the cheetah park, specifically, but I would be suspect of any conservation park that encourages human – predator baby interactions.

  • Hi MzansiGirl

    I read your post last night and remembered that I have also seen such a photo in my parents album when I was only 4. I am horrified. But then this morning I came across this posted on Irresponsible Tourism. I am speechless and saddened. The outcry on Chinese media is positive though. we can only hope China brings in regulations on how to treat such animals stranded and otherwise very soon.

    • mzansigirl says:

      Hi Deidre, I think it all comes down to education. The lion petting industry has brainwashed us that they are doing conservation, when in fact they are contributing to the slaughter. So sad. We really need to raise awareness on this issue.

  • Lungile Zakwe says:

    Well written article. I had no idea. Thanks for educating. Unfortunate situation 🙁

  • Janice Rahimi says:

    This article is so informative. Thank you. I love the big cats and I hate to see them exploited and abused. I believe most people don’t think about what will happen to the cubs when they grow up, so you are educating the public on this. It is a very important thing to do and it is much appreciated.

    • Meruschka Govender says:

      Thank you for your comment Janice. I agree, if we all speak out about this issue, we can create more awareness. Educating the public is crucial!

  • Eva Holmes says:

    I’m most upset about what happened this week at the Lion Park. I just wish that visitors would adhere to the signs in the park and be extra careful around the lions. I as a South African would really love to see a complete ban of canned hunting in this country but it’s all about the money that is made from this. Leave the big cats in the wild and stop hand rearing them to make money

    • Meruschka Govender says:

      Hi Eva. I think the warning signs are importnat, but you can’t always protect people from their own stupidity. I don’t think that people should be able to drive by themselves through these sort of parks where lions have been socialised with humans and are not scared of vehicles. I agree, let the big cats be free.

  • Giuliano Caregnato says:

    In a country with already too many laws, and an appalling record on enforcing them, I don’t think new regulations will change much.
    Raising awareness is probably the most effective way to make an impact on the industry, nice article Meru.

    • Meruschka Govender says:

      Wow, a comment from you. Means a lot! Thanks! Agreed though, too many laws, we need to create more awareness.

  • Cristina says:

    Great article Meruschka,

    My husband Hal also has one of those photos. I was horrified when I saw it. Imagine that. The US, in the 70’s. A poor lion cub in a shopping mall. It makes me shiver.

    Thank you for raising awareness on this very important issue. I’ve been meaning to write one as well. The more the better. – Cristina

    • Meruschka Govender says:

      Hi Cristina. Wow, a lion cub in a shopping mall!! Atrocious. I don’t think we even have that here in South Africa. Wildlife petting is such an problem, and most people don’t even think twice about it. We really need to raise more awareness about this issue. Look forward to reading your article, please send through the link to me when you’ve written it 🙂

    • Meruschka Govender says:

      Hi Cristina. Thanks for your feedback. All you have to do is look at Facebook and there are thousands of people posing with lion cubs. People really need to think about the welfare of these animals. If you do write a post on the issue, please send me the link. As a blogger communitynwe need to work together to raise awareness on wildlife interactions.

  • Smithd2 says:

    Fantastic website. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to a few pals ans also sharing in delicious. And naturally, thank you in your sweat! becfkedfkfadkeee

  • Lee says:

    Thanks for the article Mzansi Girl :-), I totally agree with you. I’ve actually seen a recent article about otters spotted in Cape Town which I found quite cute. Have a check here

  • This article was amazing – I have never experienced anything from South Africa before. I’m glad that you enlighten others on the conservation aspect. This happens all over the world – so sad!

    • Meruschka Govender says:

      Hi Amina
      Thank you for your feedback. Sadly, this sort of practice is not uncommom. We just need to educate people not to support the unethical treatment of these beautiful animals.

  • […] The Lion Park denies ever selling its lions into canned hunting, despite evidence to the contrary. (Since the tourist-mauling incident, the Lion Park has also announced that it will end its lion-cub-petting program in 2016. Let’s hope the park follows through on that commitment.) I’m not sure of the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve’s official stance on canned hunting, but according to the reserve’s website its so-called “Animal Crèche” is still going strong. (Read more about cub-petting on my friend Meruschka’s blog.) […]

  • Rick says:

    Very good article, however I struggled to read it to the end as these facts are so painful to know. Thanks for sharing it.

  • […] Next time you’re tempted to pet a lion cub… – Mzansi Girl […]

  • […] Which is the most read blog post on your blog and why do you think people like it? My most read blog post is about why we shouldn’t be petting lion cubs. I am very passionate about responsible tourism and really can’t believe that there are still so many companies offering lion cub and other predator petting. The lion cubs that have been socialised with humans, offen end up in the canned lion hunting. industry.  I think that there needs to be more education of tourists in respect to lion cub petting, and boycotting of establishments offering them. Its still a controversial subject, that has come to the forefront this past year since the release of the ‘Blood Lions’ documentary, though I wrote my inital blog post 4 years ago, long before the issue of lion petting hit the mainstream media. […]

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