Petting a lion cub is a really bad idea - this is why

The temptation to cuddle or pet a lion cub might be inevitable, but it truly is just a big scam. In doing so, you become part of the problem, says FOUR PAWS South Africa, an animal welfare organisation with a global footprint.

Journalists were hosted by FOUR PAWS and Humane Society International/Africa at the Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary outside Bethlehem in the Free State on Friday - World Animal Day - and got to spend some time with rescued big cats from around the world as they roamed in large enclosures that resemble their natural habitat. 

These big cats - lions, tigers, leopards and a cheetah - have been rescued from circuses and other facilities where they were exploited or simply abandoned. Some were solely raised for canned hunting. Many of these cats had never even felt grass under their paws before as they were raised and kept in cages with concrete floors. 

They cannot be reintroduced into the wild, but the sanctuary gives them the opportunity to live out the rest of their lives in comfort. 

According to FOUR PAWS, one should ask the following questions before visiting a facility where the petting of big cat cubs is allowed: 

- 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?

(Video: FOUR PAWS)

'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 more than 300 breeding farms in South Africa. These captive wildlife facilities breed and keep an estimated 10 000 to 12 000 lions, cheetahs, leopards, caracals, tigers and even ligers – a crossbreed between a lion and tiger.

big cats

Breeding machines

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, says FOUR PAWS. 

The same sequence of events applies to cheetahs and tigers as well.

Habituating cubs

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.


Cubs are taken away from their mothers and hand-reared. (FOUR PAWS)


The paying public is often able to play, pet and cuddle lion, tiger and cheetah cubs for up to eight to 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 learnt, 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. Consequently, there are no examples of successful lion-reintroduction programmes and there has been limited success with cheetah reintroductions.


A captive tiger cub. Tigers are not native to South Africa. (FOUR PAWS)

Welfare implications

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, says FOUR PAWS. 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.

FOUR PAWS urges the public to "think before you pet a lion, cheetah or tiger cub, as you become part of the problem".

- Compiled by Riaan Grobler

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