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Wild Cats Belong in the Wild: #AnimalRightsInTourism

I hadn’t planned to write a blog post today, and I don’t normally use my blog as a soap box. But then I woke up this morning and heard about the #AnimalRightsInTourism campaign.

If you live in South Africa or the United States, you probably saw last month’s terrible story about an American tourist who was killed in the Lion Park. The Lion Park, about 30 minutes north of Johannesburg, is a zoo-like game reserve where tourists go for an up-close look at lions and other big cats. One of the biggest attractions at the Lion Park is lion-cub-petting, in which visitors enter enclosures with big cat cubs (up to six months old) and are invited to interact with them. (The tourist was mauled by a lioness in the drive-through section of the park. Despite warnings to keep car windows up, the woman had her window open.)

I confess that I’ve never been to the Lion Park. But about four years ago I went to the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve, not far from the Lion Park, which offers similar activities. I knew nothing about these cub-petting programs at the time, but while I was in the reserve I saw a couple interacting with a tiger cub and felt really unnerved.

First, the cub looked way too big to be interacting with people. Second, the keeper in the enclosure was handling the cub very roughly, slapping it hard when it got too playful with the guests. And third, I couldn’t stop thinking about what kind of life that cub was going to face once it outgrew its babyhood job.

It’s been well documented that the cubs involved in these petting programs — which exist all over South Africa and are 100% legal — are frequently sold into the canned hunting industry. Canned hunting farms — which are also all over South Africa and totally legal — buy up captive-bred animals at auctions, or breed the animals themselves, and then charge big bucks for tourists to come to their farms and “hunt” the animals.

The Lion Park denies ever selling its lions into canned hunting, despite evidence to the contrary. (Since the tourist-mauling incident, the Lion Park has also announced that it will end its lion-cub-petting program in 2016. Let’s hope the park follows through on that commitment.) I’m not sure of the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve’s official stance on canned hunting, but according to the reserve’s website its so-called “Animal Crèche” is still going strong. (Read more about cub-petting on my friend Meruschka’s blog.)

I’m not against hunting in general, although why people enjoy shooting animals and watching them die is beyond me. Many of my friends and colleagues will disagree, but I think hunting can be done ethically and I also believe that ethical hunting brings big financial and ecological benefits to local communities in South Africa.

But I am against canned hunting and cub-petting, as well as any tourism activity that puts human beings into physical contact with wild animals. This includes elephant-back safaris, which my friend Kate wrote about on her blog today. As far as I’m concerned, South Africa’s tourism industry would be better off without these activities and I believe they should be banned.

I have one more confession. A couple of years ago I was invited on a media trip to a high-end private reserve in South Africa’s Waterberg region. During that visit, I pet a pair of cheetahs. I justified my actions back then by telling myself that these cheetahs, who had been hand-reared by the couple who managed the reserve, were family pets and would probably never be sold to a canned hunting farm.

But I realize now that my justification was wrong. Those beautiful cheetahs were purchased at an animal auction that almost certainly catered to the canned hunting industry. By petting those cheetahs I was indirectly supporting that industry, and that was uncool.

Blood Lions, a documentary about the canned hunting industry in South Africa, is premiering this evening in Durban. I watched the two-minute trailer earlier today and couldn’t get through it without crying, so I don’t think I’ll watch the whole film. But the Blood Lions release is the main motivation behind today’s #AnimalRightsInTourism campaign. To show your support, please follow Blood Lions on Facebook and Twitter and voice your own opinions about unethical animal practices using the #AnimalRightsInTourism hashtag.

Also, please don’t pet cubs.