Conservation is a complex issue, with complex answers, and complex situations, and very rarely can matters within it be distilled into a single, rigid policy. However, the single issue on which there is no room for discussion, is the subject of handling, and directly interacting with captive wild exotic animals. Aside from issuing medical attention or for purposes of rehabilitation, there is no benefit for the animal, in having humans handle or touch it. For the members of team ICARUS, this is nonnegotiable.
It is not, under any circumstances, acceptable for anyone, regardless of their supposed expertise, to play with, or directly handle, or socialize with captive exotic animals. This ‘special bond syndrome’ is most prevalent in big cat species, and is the leading reason so many big cats are privately owned by citizens. Every well-meaning owner believes that they have a special bond with their animals. Tragically, this very often results in injuries or death to the owners, or their acquaintances, and subsequently to the big cats themselves, who are nearly always euthanized after being involved in an attack.
Even more disturbing than the private citizens are the highly publicized ‘self-described animal behaviorists’ (traditionally a true animal behaviorist is someone who has obtained a graduate degree in related fields and has obtained a post-graduate certification) who routinely handle and interact with big cats, claiming that they do so through a special bond. The most easily recognized of these is the so-called ‘Lion Whisperer’ of South Africa. One needs only Google the title to find hundreds of pages, all filled with videos of him cheerfully playing with full grown lions or leopards, as well as spotted hyenas. The Lion Whisperer has been hosted on nearly every major network, all of which focused on his ‘amazing bond’ with the lions and animals of his sanctuary. They show a plethora of clips of him interacting with the lions, napping with them, and fondly dictating the story of each one – nearly all of whom he’s raised from either adolescence or cub-hood. It’s always mentioned that his sole purpose is to ‘bring attention to conservation matters’ and to ‘end the cub-petting industry’. The fundamental problem here, is that he’s participating in cub-petting with adult animals.
Conservation is not, and never will be, aided in any way by publicizing the act of playing with an animal. If one goes to Youtube and searches for the Lion Whisperer, they’ll be greeted with pages and pages of him playing with the lions. Where, in all of that dream-worthy special bondness is any conservation of remaining wild lions? All of the animals featured in the programs live on one of his reserves, or in his sanctuaries. Many of those have actually been imported from other places, and were not rescued, or rehabilitated. Not one animal, in the history of his sanctuaries, has ever been released into the wild. They cannot be released because they are thoroughly habituated to human interaction. A habituation that is continually reinforced through daily interactions. The fact that he has, indeed, rescued many animals from deplorable conditions, is completely overlooked by the fans who fixate on his highly publicized videos of playing with the animals.
The Lion Whisperer has thousands of loyal fans and followers who will defend him and his actions vehemently, but for the ICARUS team, actions speak louder than words. Despite all of his claims of being focused on conservation, and the fact that he has actually rescued animals, he also maintains private reserves and sanctuaries, he plays and interacts with the animals in his care, and he trains them for use in movies that he writes and produces. And those actions keep his sanctuary from being GFAS accredited. In this case, the good he does, is vastly overshadowed by the fantastical persona of Lion Whisperer who plays with lions, other big cats and wild animals. It is that persona that the public worships.
If he were a civilian who owned ten big cats and made movies with them, much of the public would consider him to be part of the problem with animal exploitation. However, they embrace the Lion Whisperer and his ‘amazing bond’ with his animals, and seem to find nothing wrong with his behavior because he’s ‘doing it for conservation’. But how many people actually associate the term ‘conservation’ with the term Lion Whisperer? The title Lion Whisperer is synonymous with the image of a man playing with a pride of lions, not with the ongoing plight of Africa’s wild animal population.
You cannot teach people that wild animals are not pets by producing movies wherein you treat wild animals like pets. You cannot teach people that wild animals should not be bred in captivity, or held in captivity, while you stroll through a created pride of captive-bred lions. There are no ‘buts’ in the terms of conservation. Experts do not have the luxury of doing things that they are actively trying to ban the public from doing. If cub-petting feeds canned hunting, and harms big cat conservation, you cannot claim that producing multiple movies that highlight your own adult-petting aids in conservation.
This is why the members of team ICARUS have a strict policy against cub-petting and direct interaction with wild exotic animals, and why we look to the standards for GFAS as a guidline. What Dade City Wild Things is doing by allowing the public to swim with tiger cubs, is no different from the Lion Whisperer swimming with adult lions. In both cases, humans are interacting with captive wild exotic animals not because it benefits the animals, but because it makes the humans feel special.
In the words of Jane Goodall, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
The question is, do you want to create a world where it’s acceptable for certain people to exploit animals in order to bring attention to animal exploitation? Or do you want to create a world wherein there is no animal exploitation at all?
The ICARUS team hopes that you will choose to become the latter. Don’t be dazzled by those who make a name for themselves by using the animals they should be caring for. Don’t allow them to convince you that it’s acceptable for them to treat animals in a way that no one else should, simply because they’re special. Remember, the animals they claim to have a special bond with have been hand-raised from birth, no differently than the cubs in cub-petting schemes. They’ve been conditioned to accept human interaction. The only difference is that while the cub-petting schemes sell their cats into the canned hunting industry, people like the Lion Whisperer simply continue to make money off their adult animals.
Author: Artemis Grey