Is it ethical to go to a big cat petting zoo?

Is it ethical to go to a big cat petting zoo?

Animal tourism is big business, especially when it comes to the dangerous predators that stalk the dense jungles of Asia or Africa’s wide-open plains. Whether it’s feeding cubs, walking with lions or petting big cats, all of these are forms of animal tourism. It’s easy to see why people do it. It looks cool and to be that close to such a stunning (and lethal) animal feels incredible. I did it in Thailand when I visited Tiger Kingdom near Chiang Mai. I had photos taken with tigers and fed cubs. It was a big moment for me. Yet whilst everything seemed to be legit it’s not good for the animals and I’d never do it again now.

But what’s so bad about taking photos with tigers in Asia or lions in Africa? Doesn’t the money go to help the big cats? It depends to some extent, but unfortunately the majority doesn’t. As with most things money talks and the more profitable an animal is, the more it’s exploited. Usually to the detriment of the animals themselves.

Male lion prowling the wild plains
King of the jungle. A wild predator. Definitely not a pet.

Big cat petting zoos and similar wildlife parks exist around the world. The biggest problem is how unnatural it is for big cats to be handled. When that’s combined with overcrowded cages the issue is only further compounded.

Abhorrent living conditions are just one of the problems big cats have to deal with in the animal tourism industry, but there are worse things going on. Typically behind the scenes, away from paying customers whose photos and experiences are shared countless times on social media.

Most tourists are unaware of what happens when they’re not around. For the thousands of big cats involved in animal tourism their lives are not a happy one. No matter how much we like to convince ourselves otherwise.

Why you shouldn’t go to a big cat petting zoo

Firstly, those cubs you’re paying to hand rear likely weren’t abandoned at birth. The cubs are torn away from their mothers at just a week or two of age. The mother, hungry and desperate, is tempted away from her new-born cubs by a tasty offering of fresh meat. Once she moves away a door is slammed shut before a keeper comes in and takes the babies away. The mother, distraught at the loss of her precious cubs, comes into heat again much sooner, meaning she can produce more cubs only to have them taken away again.

Adult tiger at a big cat petting zoo
Imagine a time when the only way to see lions and tigers is in zoos and museums

This is the life of big cats in breeding farms. Not only do they live in cramped, dirty cages with several other lions or tigers, but they are forced into mating much more regularly than they would normally. Something that can have fatal consequences.

To give some indication, a big cat in the wild would breed once every two years. In captivity, such as a zoo, it could be once a year. Big cats on breeding farms could be giving birth three or more times a year. This is the life for the poor animals brought up on breeding farms, with no real hope of escape.

The breeding farm cycle

Life for big cats in breeding farms begins when they are brutally taken away from their mother as described above. Following that, unwitting tourists pay for a chance to help hand-rear the poor cubs in sites passing themselves off as sanctuaries. Once the cubs grow a little older they’re used for photo opportunities and then at six months of age it’s time to move on to attractions such as walking with the lions.

As the cats mature they become less predictable so are used in breeding programmes. Some wildlife parks may try to disguise this as conservation, but one look at the terrible living conditions will tell you it’s anything but.

Tiger cub being bottle fed at a big cat petting zoo
As much as we’d like them to be, big cats aren’t pets

Lions and tigers look dishevelled, not much more than skin and bones covered in scars from the constant fighting brought about by having so many animals in close confines. Those with the rarer white gene are at even greater risk as they are used more often in the hope of creating white lions and tigers that will sell for more money.

Once the big cats have outlived their usefulness as a breeder they pass on to the final stage of their lives – canned hunting.

What is canned hunting?

Canned hunting is geared towards wealthy overseas tourists looking to justify themselves. Whether you agree with hunting for sport or not (and I definitely don’t), canned hunting is not hunting. For one thing the animal is limited where it can go, with great fences erected to prevent an escape. Any organisation that guarantees a 100% success rate is probably canned hunting.

Spotted jaguar, white lions and tiger
Spotted big cats such as jaguars and leopards, as well as white lions and tigers, are more at risk of being exploited by big cat petting zoos

The other main reason why this is such a charade is having been hand-reared since birth the big cat has been used to humans its entire life. When they see humans coming towards them they don’t think danger, they think they’re getting fed. The natural instincts in any animal brought up in captivity have been subdued to such an extent that they wouldn’t react the same way a truly wild animal would.

Even once the animal has been shot it’s not the end of their usefulness. There’s still money to be made by selling the carcass. With limits on imported animal ‘trophies’ the rich American dentists and other so-called hunters usually only take the head of the animal. The rest is sold, with the bones passed off as tiger bones to be used in remedies and other useless medicines.

Alternatives to big cat petting zoos

If you want to work with big cats and do your part to help out, consider volunteering in a sanctuary. However, not all places claiming to be sanctuaries are genuine, so it’s a good idea to do some thorough research beforehand. Panthera Africa Big Cat Sanctuary are based just two hours from Cape Town in South Africa and are a good example of what a sanctuary should be.

Two adult male lions gazing into the distance
Two of Panthera’s biggest residents, Achilles and Jubatus, enjoying their home

The site has large, spacious enclosures filled with enough vegetation to act as shelter and a soft covering underfoot. All of the animals at Panthera are rescues, most from horrendous breeding farms or other heart-breaking backgrounds. Not only is there no breeding at Panthera but also no trading either. All of the big cats who live there have been donated and there is no interaction, from either volunteers or the permanent members of staff.

There are many sites like this that exist throughout Africa and the rest of the world. It’s just a matter of separating the truly genuine sanctuaries from the bad.

Further reading/resources

Memorial for all the lions lost in the bone trade
A memorial at Panthera Africa for all the lions lost to the bone trade

Blood Lions: Documentary that seeks to uncover the realities of canned hunting and big cat breeding in South Africa

Born Free Foundation: International wildlife charity working for the conservation of wildlife and endangered animals

African Wildlife Foundation: Conservation organisation focused on African wildlife and wild lands

Campaign Against Canned Hunting: Campaign to outlaw lion farming in South Africa

Cuddle Me, Kill Me – by Richard Peirce: A true account of South Africa’s captive lion breeding

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