Wildlife rehabilitation has become my life’s work, and my passion. I’ve worked on a variety of projects, and in many wildlife rehabilitation centres around the globe. I’ve studied a lot, had awesome mentors, and passed tricky examinations to be the best I can be at what I do.

Being a big cat fan, I jumped at the opportunity to embark on two stints of several months duration on a lion and tiger captive breeding project. As well as sometimes being in sole charge of the animals, I also had to conduct orientations and provide training for new volunteers. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Very legitimate and well-meaning, wouldn’t you think?

Incentive to join? Cute, fuzzy cubs that “needed” hand-rearing. Vague but encouraging spins about conservation. The assurance given by the owners that I was working with “experts” who really cared about their animals.

Of course what I really mean is that, to my eternal shame, I found myself embroiled in the workings of a lion and tiger mill. And I do mean that, in exactly the same sense as the puppy and kitten mills that exist worldwide.

Yes folks, I had joined that band of people seduced by the claims of “responsible” voluntourism companies and project owners who de-fraud volunteers. They take your money – and then they lie to you. And when called out, when questioned, the lies get more outrageous. In the worst cases it turns to hostility, and you get the feeling that these people will stop at nothing to protect their sordid little empires. It is precisely for this reason that I have chosen to remain the anonymous author of this plea for justice. I have personally been threatened and bullied by disgruntled owners.

Let’s be very clear here. These projects are not about conservation. Even the South African Predator Breeders Association has admitted that lions bred on farms have no conservation value.

They are not about increasing numbers so that suitable candidates can be released to the wild or into game reserves. Game reserves are fully stocked. There is nowhere for lions to be released into the wild in southern Africa. And tigers clearly can’t be released – they’re not indigenous to South Africa. Habituation to people makes any animal unsuitable for release – ask any good wildlife rehabilitator.

They are not about preserving a diverse gene pool. I have seen brothers bred with sisters; uncles bred with nieces; grandfathers bred with grand-daughters. I have seen lions mating with tigers, with the only comment from breeders being what a coup it would be to have a liger to draw in the public. Worse yet, I once heard a suggestion to procure a jaguar to mate with leopards since the owner insisted that, apart from living on different continents, they were the same animal. I kid you not. And they’re certainly not about animal welfare. Lion and tiger mills are about one thing, and one thing only. Profit.

How do they achieve this profit? In several unsavoury ways.

The first is YOU. They’ll put up a website with some very pretty pictures which do two things. First of all they make you go “awwww”!! All those cute, fluffy bundles being cuddled by smiling teenagers. What follows is the second thing, and it usually works. You say to yourself “I want to do that!”

The second is hunting. But let’s qualify this. This isn’t the type of hunting where you go out into the unfenced veld, find a wild animal, and then take your chances. This is canned hunting. This is where the animal is in a confined area and has nowhere to go. The animal will be killed, quickly or slowly, following one shot or many – depending on your skill with a rifle. Or worse, with a bow.

The third, equally despicable profit-maker is the lion bone trade. Yes, there is such a trade just as there is a trade in tiger parts. As tigers become rarer, and the price of bits and pieces of them go up, lion mill operators find it convenient to sell off the by-products of dead lions to fill the gap.

So how do the last two profit-making activities have anything to do with voluntourism? Well, here’s the thing. All those cute, fluffy babies that all those teenagers were cuddling? All those babies that the owners, and like as not the tour companies, told you were going to be released, or go to zoos, or be used in scientific breeding programs? They’ll end up as trophies on a wall, or as a bunch of boiled bones. They’re going to end up dead at the hand of man – or woman. The “lucky” ones will be bred into the ground first.

What most volunteers don’t know, and are never told, is that by hand-rearing cubs they actively contribute to the canned hunting, lion bone, and tiger body part industries. Volunteers are doing the dirty work of habituating big cats to people, so that they’re easy to kill, because a habituated big cat sees humans as a food provider. Volunteers also actively contribute to the poor welfare of big cats in captivity.

How is this possible? Well, most volunteers on these projects are very young and naïve. No-one told them they should do some research first. Most volunteers don’t question why cubs are removed from their mothers at such a young age. Nor do they question the sheer numbers of cubs. Most volunteers never ask where the cubs go once they’re too big for interaction with the paying public. Young volunteers, in particular, tend to believe whatever fabrication is in vogue with project managers and owners. And that can change from week to week, day to day, even volunteer to volunteer, in some instances.

Volunteers don’t get a lot of quality training. In a lot of cases, training is left in the hands of fellow volunteers who may only have been at the project a week or two longer than new arrivals. With no adequate training themselves, how can they possibly provide first-class care, let alone pass high standards on to new volunteers?

Volunteers are not taught about hygiene, diet, enrichment, or how to tell if an animal might be ill. If you’re lucky you’ll find a longer-term volunteer who actually knows how to handle big cats. Otherwise you’re given all sorts of misinformation about interacting with them, which can be downright dangerous. Volunteers are laughed at if they show an aversion to chopping carcases or handling dead chickens. They are derided if they have the audacity to ask awkward questions or – heaven forbid! – start doing any independent research.

You see the owners and managers, these “experts” who breed cubs ultimately destined for tragic ends, only want volunteers for the large amounts of money they bring in. These “experts” often have no qualifications. They don’t care about the health issues brought on by inbreeding. They don’t care about the condition of females continually brought into oestrus by the early removal of cubs, or about the condition of males being placed with pens of receptive females month after month after month. They know nothing and care less about appropriately balanced diet and supplementation either for cubs or adults.

They care nothing about providing warmth – essential in the first few days of life as cubs are not immediately able to thermoregulate. They care nothing about feeding frequency, the importance of weighing cubs regularly, or even the composition of lion or tiger milk so they can match it as closely as possible with their dodgy home-made formulas. If you were to use the phrase “colostrum replacement for very young cubs” they probably wouldn’t know what you were talking about – but would dismiss it as unimportant. They don’t care that the consequences of incorrect diet on a cub can be disastrous. After all – there’ll always be another cub to replace any who die.

Often as not, they won’t consult a vet about a sick cub or adult. They might have their own small stock of medicines on hand which they will administer, witch-doctor like, for a diverse range of ailments. Most ailments in young cubs are dismissed as being a “normal” part of hand-rearing. Let me tell you, there is nothing normal about a cub having diarrhoea for days on end due to a poorly formulated diet.

Many will sedate animals with controlled substances on their own without the attendance of a vet. Most wildlife rehabilitation centres are not allowed access to these drugs. This is an undertaking that is blatantly against South African law. And these experts are certainly not there to teach, about anything – conservation, threats, disease. Some of them will even flatly deny the latest IUCN redlist categorisation, insisting that lions are not in trouble in the wild.

Adequate housing is also a foreign concept. I have seen enclosures of just a couple of hectares housing as many as 50 lions. I’ve seen the same sized enclosure housing 20-30 lions and tigers. I’ve seen enclosures the size of a small front garden housing up to 12 cubs. I’ve seen a small nursery building – around the same size as the average kitchen – housing up to 9 cubs. I’ve seen enclosures with no shelter from the elements, filthy water containers, and too many stressed animals. I’ve seen poor quality fences and gates, and electric fence systems that, if they’re even switched on, don’t necessarily work.

You, the volunteer, make this possible on such a large scale. It’s for the sake of your income that lion and tiger mills pull cubs from their mothers at two weeks, or even younger.

You, the volunteer, have the power to bring an end to this cruel and shameful trade. Refuse to be used by profiteers interested only in lining their own pockets. Refuse to be used by travel companies who support any project that advertises raising cubs, walking with cubs, or petting cubs. Use your voice and tell everyone you know about the reality of the predator breeders masquerade.

We owe it to all those cute fuzzy creatures in the glossy ads.