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
10 thoughts on “Why The End Will Never Justify The Means When It Comes To Conservation”
You are the first person I have seen to say it like it is about this guy and others like him. It undermines real conservation when this sort of behavior is applauded, when it is exactly what leads to all of the misery these great cats endure.
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there will always be exceptions, there will always be individuals eating dead bodies of animals, even if it would be forbidden once , in the end of the day i want to know :are the animals healthy ? as close as possible or in their habitat? cared for ? loved ? safe ? if you make it possible to end hunting on this planet completely you do not have the right to judge someone like Kevin Richardson , the one who wrote the article sounds rather jealous, maybe he/she should start DOING something for animals instead of ranting about those who do , btw where is the name of the writer ? never trust ppl who hide
Thanks for stopping by! The author of this post is Artemis Grey. You can read her bio in our ‘About’ section. She’s currently involved with animal conservation on several fronts, including the ICARUS project, where she writes articles focused on responsible animal advocacy. The ICARUS team maintains a strict opposition to handling or playing with exotic wild animals, which promotes the archetype of cub-petting, thus we do not, under any circumstances, endorse activities such as those engaged in by the Lion Whisperer.
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Perhaps the “Lion Whisperer” should call it “rescue” instead of “conservation” if he is indeed rescuing animals from bad conditions. He is certainly not preserving lions in the wild.
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I have thought this for a very long time. I am glad some one spoke up and is standing up to this. Zoologists sacrifice the need for affection with wild animals so that we can save them from ourselves.
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That is the most eloquent and honest way I have ever heard anyone put it. Thank you. The animals thank you!
While I would agree with you on most conservation-related issues, it does not appear that you have done your homework regarding Kevin Richardson. You should actually read the recent Smithsonian article, as it refutes most of your concerns.
As you’ve noted, lions in sanctuaries don’t get rehabbed and released into wild; so a good quality of life is all that one could hope for. The lions in Kevin’s care not only have a good quality of life, but many of them get to be “advocates” for lions in the wild. This can hardly be considered exploitation.
Regarding wild lions, Kevin does a great deal to raise awareness about a number conservation issues. I had never heard of “canned hunting” or “cub petting” until I read about them on his website. He has educated people on habitat loss, discussed poaching, promoted the Blood Lions movie – lots of things. (However, I have not heard him express his opinions on other wildlife conservation groups.)
In my opinion, your focus on his “means” seems a little out of proportion. Aren’t trophy hunters, canned hunting industries and habitat loss the real enemies here?
Conservation efforts won’t succeed without winning people over. Don’t underestimate the power of being “likable”.
Tina, I’m glad that the Lion Whisperer brought canned hunting and cub-petting, along with other issues, to your attention. I have, however, ‘done my homework’ in regard to the Lion Whisperer, and have, in fact, read the Smithsonian article to which you are referring. I do not see how it refutes my concerns where the Lion Whisperer is concerned. On the contrary, it validates the main problem that the members of the ICARUS team have with him. The fact that he openly admits that what he does is contradictory to what other people should do, and he claims that his lions are exceptional, and his own relationship with them is exceptional. It is this very belief which leads countless numbers of people to engage in private ownership of wild animals, big cats in particular. Canned hunting, habitat loss, and trophy hunters are only part of the problems we face as conservationists. Private ownership equals them, as currently there are an estimated 5,000 tigers held by private owners in the United States alone, while there are less than 2,300 tigers remaining in the wild. And tigers make up only a portion of the captive exotic animals held by private owners as pets. Big cats as oversized pets is something that the Lion Whisperer glamorizes through his own interactions with the animals, such as roughhousing with them, swimming with them, playing with them, or even riding them around like they’re ponies. The Smithsonian article goes on to cite that Lion Whisperer believes ‘helping people appreciate the animals – even if it’s in the form of fantasizing about hugging them – will ultimately motivate them to oppose hunting and support protection.’ On this, the ICARUS group strongly disagrees. ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ as a method of teaching in ineffectual at best, and completely negates its own intended purpose, at worst.
The Lion Whisperer does, indeed, raise awareness – some of it in regard to very important issues – but his actions also perpetuate the desire to interact directly with wild animals. In matters of conservation, the means is every bit as important as the end, because if you do not attain that end through sustainable conservation – such as preserving animals in their natural habitat – then you have not actually solved the problem. That the Lion Whisperer has a sanctuary full of rescued lions is not an issue. That he publicizes himself playing with the animals is the problem. It isn’t a matter of being ‘likable’ but a matter of setting an appropriate example. For the ICARUS group, that example should be one of hands off conservation, rather than one of ‘watch me play with big cats and other wild animals, but you shouldn’t ever do this because that wouldn’t be responsible conservation’ which is, in effect, what the Lion Whisperer is saying.
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This article is well written and extremely informative. I do hope lots of people read this and pass it on.
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