The Dark Side of Cub-Petting. Disturbing Welfare Consequences for Big Cats Cubs

Lion cubs sitting on a fallen tree.

A recent study led by New York University and animal welfare organization FOUR PAWS has shed light on the distressing impact of cub petting, a popular wildlife tourist attraction. The research exposes the normalization of touching young lions, the perpetuation of captive breeding, and dire implications for the African lion species.

Cub petting involves using young animals, especially big cats like lions and tigers, as play toys and photo props for paying customers.

To investigate cub welfare at facilities in South Africa, researchers turned to unconventional sources – public tourist videos on YouTube. The study focused on gaining insights into animal behavior, husbandry practices, and living conditions that are often challenging to document through traditional means. The pervasive “selfie” culture in cub petting, fuelled by social media, served as a unique source of animal behavior and welfare data.

Analysis of 267 videos resulted in a 49-video database of tourist-lion interactions at cub facilities. Shockingly, an estimated 61% of the cubs were under three months old, with two videos depicting cubs as young as nine days and one day old, their eyes still shut.

Notably, the mother lion appeared in only one of the 49 videos. The study reveals that cubs displayed stress behaviors, including avoidance and aggression, indicating the negative impact of the cub-petting industry on these young animals.

Young lion cub in the wild

Co-author Dr. Becca Franks notes that cub-petting facilities present grave welfare concerns despite good intentions. Cubs in such environments face separation from their mothers and forced interactions beyond their species’ normal waking hours, contributing to a larger cycle of harm encompassing the canned hunting industry, exotic pet trade, and black market for wildlife parts.

The study emphasizes the importance of ending the commercial use and trade of big cats globally, including practices such as private keeping, captive breeding, trophy hunting, and cub petting. Dr. Franks, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Co-Director of NYU’s Wild Animal Welfare Program, highlights the need for improved human interactions with wild animals.

The study concludes that cub-petting facilities perpetuate harm to young lions, normalize touching, and contribute to captive breeding. With implications for the welfare and conservation of the species, the research underscores the urgency of addressing the ethical concerns surrounding cub petting.

As travel rebounds, co-author Saryn Chorney suggests that tourists may seek immersive animal experiences, emphasizing the need for responsible and ethical wildlife interactions.

Currently, more lions are in captivity than freely roaming in the wild, raising questions about the origin and treatment of cubs in these facilities. The study brings attention to the broader welfare concerns throughout the captive lion life cycle, urging a re-evaluation of practices that compromise both human and big cat safety.

As the world grapples with the aftermath of the global pandemic, the study advocates leaving behind inappropriate and dangerous wildlife interactions, including exploitative attractions like cub petting.

Contributor @Khaki Bush magazine
Images Credit @Elemento

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