In an earlier post titled ‘Why The End Will Never Justify The Means When It Comes To Conservation’ (which you can read here) ICARUS wordsmith Artemis Grey focused on the issue of ‘hands off’ conservation, particularly citing the world famous ‘Lion Whisperer’ who insists that his main focus is animal advocacy and conservation, even while he, himself, interacts with the lions under his care, and engages in the exact activities that he condemns as animal exploitation in other situations. As expected, we received a great deal of defensive response from fans and supporters of the Lion Whisperer, every one of which contained some version of the statement ‘He does those things, but…’
But he raises awareness. But the animals are well cared for. But he does more good than bad. But he has a special bond. But the only reason you’re attacking him is because secretly, you’re jealous of him. But you can’t compare what he does to ‘real’ cub-petting. But he didn’t breed his lions (up for debate) so it’s not the same. But other experts do it, so it’s not fair to single him out. But, but but….
After consideration, Artemis decided to write a second post on the matter of hands off conservation, expanding it. After all, she did, indeed, focus primarily on the Lion Whisperer, and he isn‘t the only ‘expert conservationist’ who mishandles the animals in their care, and he’s not the only well-known “sanctuary” which fails to qualify for GFAS accreditation because of direct contact with animals.
The ICARUS group maintains a strict policy against handling captive wild animals, except for the purposes of rehabilitation or medical treatment. Have the members of ICARUS made mistakes? Yes, you can read one of the first posts we ever published wherein we acknowledge that we’ve made mistakes, and subsequently learned from them, and strived to do better, here. It’s human to make mistakes. It’s exploitive to continue making those mistakes and label it as conservation.
It might be best to start with the original ‘Father of Lions’ himself, George Adamson. There is virtually no one on earth who hasn’t heard of Elsa the lion, and her offspring, or of Joy and George, the folks who raised Elsa and other lions. What isn’t well known, is that Elsa herself died tragically young (widely believed because of a tick-borne illness, but the truth might have more to do with human predation, though the pressure to cover it up is immense) and all of her offspring also died within a few years, killed either by game wardens for predation on livestock or attacks on humans, or killed by farmers as they were attacking livestock. In addition, one of the very lions used in the making of the famous movie Born Free, injured staff during filming, and was subsequently shot by George himself after mauling a child, and then killing one of George’s assistants, whom the animal had known since birth.
It’s possible that if they were alive now, both George and Joy would have regrets about their inadvertent exploitation of the lions in their care (and of course, GFAS accreditation did not exist while they were alive). Actress Tippi Hedren shared similar experiences with lions as a young woman, but Tippi, now 85, advocates against ever possessing a big cat as a pet or otherwise exploiting them.
The word ‘but’ in regard to conservation is a dangerous, and insidious thing. When you are dealing with a public looking to you for examples of how to protect wild animals, you must make yourself an ideal example. A child who witnesses domestic violence, even if as a child they are told that hitting people is wrong, is at a much higher risk to subsequently abuse their domestic partner. While this statistic does not directly relate to animal abuse, it does represent the scientifically accepted fact that a child who witnesses something they understand to be wrong is more likely to engage in that behavior at some point, than a child who witnesses correct behavior. Applied to conservation, this means that children who idolize adults mishandling animals in their care might understand that the animals shouldn’t be handled that way, and yet still engage in that behavior themselves. It is far better to simply refrain from doing things you don’t want the public at large to do.
The late Steve Irwin is another example of someone with the best intentions, who did not necessarily set the best example. I adored Steve, I still adore Steve and his family. I think they have the best intentions, and they’ve certainly helped to bring conservation into the limelight. However, Australia Zoo continues to allow the public to walk with, take pictures with, and feed tigers and other wild animals, for a starting price of $400.00. I would never slander Steve. I simply do not condone the behavior of his Australia Zoo.
The human capacity for rationalizing is inexhaustible, much to the detriment of the animals in their care. Often times, ‘experts’ with a comparable amount of experience with their animals are differentiated by how they’re presented, not what they’re actually doing. Humans will rationalize away blatant similarities simply because they like one expert over another, or because they feel that what one expert is doing with their animals is somehow more righteous than what another is doing, when in fact both experts are exploiting their animals.
The Lion Whisperer relaxing with one of his white lions, vehemently defended by his fans as a ‘conservationist with a special bond with his animals’. His television shows depicting such interactions are not considered animal exploitation by his fans, but rather, advocacy.
It is not merely individual highly visible people who engage in this sort of ‘It’s okay for me to do it, I’m an expert’ behavior. Dade City’s Wild Things has been in the media recently after coming under fire for allowing tourists to swim with tiger cubs (for a price) but the park adamantly defends its decision to allow public interaction with its animals as outreach and conservation advocacy that gets the public involved.
Black Jaguar White Tiger Foundation is an extremely recognizable foundation which claims to be a rescue center and a sanctuary. However, while it is a private organization, celebrities are often invited to come visit and play with the many young animals, and it is not a GFAS accredited sanctuary. Despite that the group advertises itself as a conservation center, the animals are uncut and allowed to breed at will. With hundreds of thousands of defending fans, Black Jaguar White Tiger is acclaimed and its founder, Eduardo, is worshiped as a savior of the animals in his possession. The truth is that he permits breeding, and handling, using the massive draw of adored celebrities playing with captive wild animals to provide constant social media exposure. This, in turn, brings in huge donations which he uses to maintain his facility.
Eduardo, and various celebrities, at the Black Jaguar White Tiger Foundation. The large number of cubs is not maintained through ‘intentional breeding’ Eduardo and his supporters insist, but rather, through ‘allowing nature to take its course’.*
T.I.G.E.R.S. (The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species) of Myrtle beach fame is another group that runs multiple parks, and multiple opportunities for the public to hold and play with the animals the group is supposedly breeding and raising in the name of conservation. Though their very name insinuates that they deal in endangered and rare species, one of the animals they’re most famous for, Hercules the liger, is not a naturally occurring species at all, but rather, a hybrid created by humans through the forced breeding of a lion and a tiger. Though T.I.G.E.R.S. says it donates a great deal of money to conservation, most of that money is made by allowing the public to play with captive big cats, and there is little evidence that any of it actual goes to conservation. They are also not GFAS accredited, despite their use of the word “sanctuary”.
And there are many, many more groups and people who engage in behavior that is damaging to their animals. It would literally be impossible to include every single one in one post. There will always be one more person or group who is ‘worse’ or ‘less responsible’. It remains an uphill battle to speak out against such activities, as fans and followers will always defend those they adore, but the ICARUS group remains firm in their position. It is entirely possible to love a person or group, and yet not condone what they do. It is possible to disagree with their actions openly without slandering them. It is also possible to feed and shelter an animal, and still do it a terrible injustice by exploiting it.
The photographs in this post are designed to highlight the dangerous problem with using the word ‘but’ in regard to the handling of animals by people, experts or otherwise. This is one reason that the ICARUS group is evenhandedly against ever handling captive wild animals aside from giving them medical care, or rehabilitative therapy, and one reason that we chose to embrace the strict guilders of the GFAS. Humans will always attempt to rationalize why it’s acceptable for one person to carry out exploitation while it’s unacceptable for others to do the same. Thus, we take the stand that it is never acceptable. The justification of an expert’s behavior is a slippery slope the ICARUS team refuses to even start down. Instead, we choose to approach conservation and preservation by setting an example of what the public should do in regard to both wild animals, and captive wild animals, rather than showing them what they should not do.
In the words of Thoreau ‘Wildness is the preservation of the world.’
If you love wild animals, keep them wild. Support groups like ICARUS who are working to keep them wild, not treat them like pets in the name of conservation. Actions speak louder than words. If someone is receiving money in exchange for allowing public interaction with captive wild animals, or receiving money in exchange for their own interactions with captive wild animals, then they are not acting in the name of conservation, even if they are speaking about it.
Author: Artemis Grey
*This statement has been removed from the foundation’s website since the publication of this article.