Should We be Allowed to Pet Lion Cubs in African Reserves?

South Africa, Lion cubs, nature reserve

Baby animals. Everyone loves them. They’re cute, fluffy bundles of goodness that can put a smile on even the sourest of faces. People love to look at them, photograph them, touch them, and hold them.

But at what point should we take a step back and reassess who’s gaining from it?

During my time in South Africa, I went to a few game reserves where you could see wild animals enjoying their natural environment. Cheetahs resting their spotty bods in the afternoon sun, hippos wallowing in mud-stained water, zebras munching on sweet, summer grass, and warthogs snuffling around in the shade of a tree or two.

There wasn’t a cage in sight and it was wonderful seeing wildlife at its best – in the wild.

animals in south africa

But when things seem too good to be true, they usually are. One such reserve I went to allowed visitors to drive their vehicles around acres of land, searching for animals that were, in most senses of the word, at home. I had never seen space like it – rolling hills, soft sandy rocks, clumps of shrubbery popping with vibrant flowers, trees to relax under in the midday heat, and did I mention rolling landscapes as far as the eye could see?

A lot of visitors drove straight through this, though, in haste to get to the popular attraction. The main event, if you will. They bypassed the impalas, springbok, blessbok and zebras grazing on the flat terrain. They took a quick photo or two of the lazy tortoise crossing the road. They sped around the cheetah “area”, eyes swiftly scanning the long grass.

The reason?

You could pet baby lion cubs in the reserve’s nursery.

Lion cub, african animals, South Africa, white lion

I must admit, I got quite excited when I heard this could be a possibility. I’d been to South Africa a few years before and missed my chance to get up close and personal with the soft, furry bundles, so I thought my luck had come in.

But then I changed my mind. Very, very quickly.

The nursery section housed a plethora of baby animals; a young giraffe here, a pool of small crocodiles there. They didn’t have the freedom that their adult counterparts had, though. Instead, they were confined to small pens that openly welcomed the gaze of visitors at every hour.

South african animals

It was the lion cubs that had the worst position. Their pen lay slap bang in the centre of the nursery, surrounded by all the other pens and without a hideaway for respite. Even the ‘bed’ area was exposed so visitors could get a glimpse of their little faces when they were sleeping.

The queue for the petting was long. And I mean long. It was full of cranky children who didn’t want to wait and who were getting hungry near lunchtime. Without a doubt it was the main attraction; obviously people had come especially for the opportunity of a few moments with one of the world’s most majestic creatures.

I stayed for a moment, watching the petting process. This is when I decided that I didn’t want to pet a lion cub and I never would. It was a little bit heartbreaking.

Lion cubs south africa

A group of children scurried over to the ‘bed’ area where the cubs were catching some shade and having a snooze, and got right up in their faces with cameras, snapping away. Click, click, click. They poked their hands into the side of the shelter, reaching out to pat the cubs, and asked their friends to take photos of them posing with the babies.

I didn’t know this before, but lions sleep for an extortionate amount of the day (lucky things), sometimes for up to twenty-two hours. The cubs only had a one-hour break from the petting all day. For the rest of the day they were subjected to jabbing hands, the click and whir of cameras, and the squeals of excited children.

Constantly being woken up and disrupted is never fun, but even more so in the soaring heat of the African midday sun. They panted and panted away, squeezing their eyes shut against the glare of the sun, and ducked their heads away from prying hands. All the while, the guide looked on in the other direction.

I know a lot of these reserves tout cub petting as a conservation activity, whereby the money raised from it goes straight back into caring for the lions. But at what expense? At the expense of these poor cubs that are treated like toys everyday? No doubt they are well looked after, but is this any way for one of Africa’s finest wild animals to live?

Lion subs south africa

South Africa, Lion cubs, nature reserve

The problem with humans is that we want it all. Simply seeing these animals is not enough, we want to get closer, to go one step further and touch them. It’s not going to change our lives if we pet a lion cub, but it is definitely effecting the lives of the animals. What do we gain from it? A few potential Facebook profile pictures and bragging rights?

What do the cubs gain from it?

Maybe, for once, we should take a step back. If we didn’t take, take, take all the time, we might actually start to appreciate things. These are wild animals, and that’s where they should stay – in the wild, or at least an environment that simulates this. Sure, it’s the reason why they’re so fascinating, but why would we want to change that?

So, before you ruin another cub’s nap, consider the other ways in which you can contribute to the conservation of a reserve. The little lions will thank you for it.

What do you think? Should we be allowed to pet lion cubs?


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Lizzie Davey

Lizzie is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer who's written for big-name brands like National Geographic Traveller, Cheapflights, LateRooms and more. After quitting her job in August 2014, she had one month to get her business in order and off the ground. Somehow, she did it (magic, maybe?!), and now she runs Wanderful World, a place for creative freelancers to congregate and learn how to grow their kick-ass businesses and travel more. Join along for the ride!

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9 Discussion to this post

  1. Oh, this is interesting. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. Personally I never even thought of petting one.

  2. shing says:

    I agree with you Lizzie. I really don’t think it’s necessary to pet the animals which (importantly) are not domesticated, and when money is exchanged for this kind of entertainment then the animal really is being exploited. It might seem like an over-dramatic statement to make but true nonetheless because the animal’s quality of life is being reduced as soon as you break up it’s sleep – one of the body’s most important functions. Like you said, if my sleep was broken so that a queue of people could prod and poke me all day long I would go ballistic. We hear about animals leashing out on humans and it’s situations like this which encourage otherwise peaceful animal to say ‘enough is enough’ but because we don’t share the same language they respond through physical retaliation.

    Conservations do amazing things to ensure the protection of animals so petting doesn’t really fit into the whole ethos, in fact it’s an artificial way to get up close with an animal. I do, however, appreciate that children and adults want to get close to animals but surely being in the same vicinity and watching them is enough? I also appreciate that conservations need more financial support but I’m sure there are better ways to achieve this. A slight increase in the entrance fee is just one example.

    • Lizzie Davey says:

      I completely agree with you Shing! I don’t think saying the animals are being exploited is over-dramatic at all – it’s true. When something doesn’t have a choice and is being used for financial gain, it is being exploited. There’s no two ways about it. I also agree that there are so many other ways for conservationists to raise money… Which I’m sure the vast majority of people would be willing to support.

      I was more than happy just watching the animals. It’s not something you get to see every day (well, not in England, anyway!) so it was more than enough.

  3. Tom says:

    I think you are completely right. The place is amazing and to look at animals in their natural environment may be a thrilling event, however we should not interfere so much with the mother nature. The animals have their own lives, they don’t need human ‘entertainment’ nor they understand it. I could never understand when people dress their pets and I don’t like people use animals in circus etc…

    • Lizzie Davey says:

      I completely agree with you, Tom. When a creature doesn’t have a choice in something, it starts verging on exploitation (which is what I think is happening with the petting of animals in nature reserves as well as when people dress up their pets). You have to think about whether this would happen in the wild, whether this is something that nature intended for them to do and, if it’s not, then it should be avoided.

  4. We were just in Tanzania and the animals were wild and free as can be. You’re actually the second person I’ve come across recently to have been in other parts of Africa where going on safari seems more like going to a zoo. I am thoroughly confused! Are the animals now just free and wild?

  5. Aruna Mohan says:

    And not only is it no life for the cubs at that moment, just stop to think how this comes about and what happens with them later. An ‘endless’ supply of cubs to pet means they are taken from there mother when only days old so that she will have more cubs soon. And then when the cubs grow too big to be petyed, what do you do with an ‘endless’ supply of lions who are used to human contact and CANNOT BE REINTRODUCED IN THE WILD! ? Simple: you shoot them. Actually you get an idiot with a lot of money to be driven around a fenced enclosure and when he/she finds the lion they shoot it from a looooong way away with a high powered rifle. And it’s all legal unfortunately.
    A safari is one thing, but a lot of game parks and private reserves that offer Lion interaction, and i think here it looks and sounds like the Lion & Rhino park in Joburg, make their money out of canned hunting in the long run…

    • Lizzie Davey says:

      Completely agree Aruna – we should be thinking about what happens to the cubs afterwards, too, when they are no longer cute and cuddly. I’ve heard a lot about lion shooting recently and it absolutely disgusts me. How anyone can even consider killing such a beautiful creature is beyond me… Most of the time it seems all they want from it is a photo for social gain. They don’t even think about the consequences. Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful comment.

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