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