A few years ago while on holiday in Cape Town, South Africa I had what I considered the privilege of petting a young cheetah. I remember being led into the enclosure by the handler, slowly crouching down and running my fingers through its spotted coat. It was an exhilarating feeling knowing that I was in such close proximity to one of the fastest creatures on the planet. The cheetah on the other hand couldn’t seem to care less and looked off into the distance while I petted her and took multiple photos to capture the moment.
Like so many others, I was blissfully unaware of the implications of my actions but had I known then what I know now, I would most certainly not have supported such an encounter.
With their soft fur, padded paws and playful nature, big cat cubs are undeniably irresistible. Just the idea of being able to hold and play with one of these beautiful babies is enough to melt even the hardest of hearts so it’s little surprise that cub petting is such a lucrative industry around the world.
Public encounters with these wild animals are often packaged under the guise of “rehabilitation” or “conservation” making the handling of them even more appealing to the public. After all, who wouldn’t want to pet and play with an adorable baby lion that is being looked after and nursed back to health in a protective environment under the supervision of “experts” in the field?
The reality of cub petting, though, is a lot darker than most people realise. Lions in particular are the victims of this cruel industry. Once the cubs become too big for petting they are then used for walking tours where tourists are given the opportunity to walk alongside the young lions in an open area. This is often marketed as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” and is becoming increasingly popular, bridging the gap between cub petting and canned hunting.
The fully grown lions are then sold off to be used in canned hunting where they are kept in confined areas, from which they cannot escape, giving the hunter an almost guaranteed kill. Here they will meet their harsh fate of being shot, with some hunters even sending lion body parts home to America or Europe as hunting trophies.
I spoke to Chris Mercer, co-founder of CACH (Campaign Against Canned Hunting), and Judi Gounaris, Conservationist and Projects Abroad’s Conservation Manager in Southern Africa, to get their take on animal petting encounters and the repercussions that go hand in hand with them.