Media, Money, and Me: The Three ‘M’s of Mock Conservation

I’ve been very off the radar in the last few weeks. I first went on a two week camping vacation and then needed to deal with some personal things, both sad – the death of a beloved cat – and great – I’ve now officially signed a book contract for my Contemporary YA! While I was gone, the other members of the ICARUS team have done an amazing job of holding down the fort – from thousands of miles away, no less! Now that I’m back, and I’ve attained some semblance of balance, I’m trying to get back into the swing of writing blog posts.

As I was reinserting myself into social media, I found my feed congested with numerous animal-related posts. This isn’t unusual, of course. A number of them had to do with recent developments in the Kristen Lindsey case (you might be familiar with the Texas veterinarian who shot a pet cat through the head with an arrow and then boasted about it on Facebook. If not, a quick Google search will bring you up to date) but a huge number of them were posts I’d either been tagged in by well-meaning friends, or that had been shared by people I follow (some of them Celebs) and who were just trying to share happiness and good feelings.

The problem is, the majority of these ‘feel good’ posts involve mock conservationists who are basking in the limelight of their own proclaimed knowledge and awesomeness. They are not, in fact, people acting in the name of conservation, nor are they acting in a manner that will meaningfully further genuine conservation. The ICARUS group has posted before on this subject, and we’ll post again, unfortunately, because it is a constant struggle to convey to the public exactly why these (many times) adored and revered ‘experts’ are doing more harm than good in the world of conservation. I like to use the 3M system when taking measure of a supposed conservationist.

Media – Just how much media coverage does this person receive? You can’t always control whether or not the media focuses on you, of course, but does the person seek media attention out? To they regularly engage in media outreach by posting videos of themselves working for their conservation? Do they constantly offer professional opinions on whatever animal welfare subjects are trending? And does their professional opinion consist of comparing what they do, to what the subject is, in a fashion that presents ‘their’ way as the ‘right’ way?

Money – Does the person gain money from directly interacting with their animal, allowing the public to directly interact with them, or by exploiting the animals by using them to make movies, or commercials?

Me – Does the person focus primarily on themselves, what they do, and how they do it, rather than the animals and their plights? Another good judge is to look at it from the standpoint of ‘If you removed the supposed expert from the situation, would you still get information about the animals, or would the whole thing be meaningless without the expert?’ If you can removed the ‘main character’ and still walk away with a plethora of information about the animal and it’s plight, then the focus is truly on the animal. If you can’t remove the ‘main character’ and still learn something about the animal, then the supposed conservationists has made it all about them, rather than the animals.

And yes, some of these are folks we’ve spoken out against before. We don’t have any personal vendetta against them, we simply do not agree with that they’re doing, and how they’re influencing the public, and they remain squarely in the spotlight of the public’s enamored eye, thus making themselves a target for us to counter.

The first culprit of these mock conservation articles in my news feed is no stranger to conflict. Bhagavan “Doc” Antle has been at the center of both loving fans, and lawsuits, often in equal measure.

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Since Rolling Stone featured him in a recent article (why, oh why, Stone, can you not grasp the need for research in your articles?) about the death of a zoo worker in New Zealand, the aforementioned article has cropped up in my newsfeed repeatedly, often accompanied by comments along the lines of ‘This guy has the coolest job ever!’ or ‘Sign me up, I want to visit!’ or ‘This guy is amazing! Saving those rare cats!’

This is *the* most difficult things to counter in the world of media. Misinformation. In a world where Google is the go-to answer for everything, the majority of people read an article published by a well known name and then perceive whatever is written within that article as irrefutable fact. Tragically, this is how falsehoods are spread thousands of times over. Rolling Stone portrayed Antle as a boisterous, eccentric, but utterly devoted conservationist, who runs a sanctuary for rare big cats. They smoothed over Antle’s blatantly chauvinistic and arrogant belief that ‘there is no valid critic of Doc Antle’ as a laughable part of his personality. The author of the article did not seem bothered by how Antle likens those who do not support direct interaction with wild animals to ‘jihadists’ who don’t believe there’s any other way to see the world. Within the first few moments of the interviewer’s visit Antle made it clear that he both believes himself to be above reproach, and that anyone who speaks out against him is an extremist bent on destroying him. His business parks (and they are his “business”) are not GFAS accredited sanctuaries, but rather breeding facilities, or public entertainment facilities. In every day social interactions, someone who speaks of themselves in such a way would be quickly abandoned by those around him for acting like a pompass ass. But in Antle’s case, the interviewer only laughed it off as ‘personality’.

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The article went on at length, covering Antle’s background and early years, detailing how he first purchased a tiger cub from a friend with ‘zoo connections’ (likely this cub was a victim of the breeding-for-public-attraction at zoos) and how after training it to sit still, he got the idea to charge people money to have their photographs taken with it. Oddly the article fails to mention that when Antle left Virginia he also left a number of animals (primarily fowl and deer) abandoned in their enclosures on his property. There was also concern involving a possible tiger bite at that facility, but as it occurred in 1989 records about it are difficult to find. I live not far from where he was located, however, and everyone knew about ‘that crazy moron with all those animals who fancies himself an expert’. Then one day, he was simply gone, and the county was left to clean up the aftermath, and re-home the animals.

The article also failed to note any of almost 40 violations registered by the USDA alone (there are other charges or violations from other groups) that Antle has managed to collect over the decades that he’s been breeding and mishandling wild animals. Many of these involve inadequate housing, or enclosures, failure to provide appropriate feed, actual escapes of cats and apes, and at least once incidence of attack on a model being used in a photo shoot. In that case, Antle vehemently insists that the model cut her head by falling off a platform, despite that the treating doctors documented the injury as a big cat bite, and the model underwent the rabies vaccination course.

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Antle’s list of violations is a matter of public record, but continues to be overlooked by the media who offer up stories of his supposed efforts in conservation. Here are two links highlighting how what Antle does is damaging, and his USDA violations.

Next on the list of mock conservationists is also someone we’ve talked about before, and someone who has a throng of followers and fans. I’m sure posting him here will be met with defensive comments. I give you my word, I’m only including him in this post because stories featuring him have shown up in my feed multiple times in the last week. Kevin Richardson – often referred to as the Lion Whisperer – is known across the globe for ‘being accepted as part of the pride’. The problem is, the ‘pride’ is an artificial one comprised largely of animals that Kevin himself bought (arguably to keep them from being used in canned hunting, but by buying them, he still put money into the canned hunting industry) and hand raised himself. Objectively, his ‘acceptance’ by this pride is no different from the ‘acceptance’ of any backyard owner who interacts with their captive exotic cat.

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Kevin puts out videos quite often, all of them featuring him interacting with his lions, sometimes outlandishly riding them like ponies, or roughhousing with them. He has trained a number of his animals for movies, and has used them for such. In this case, the video was shared by multiple people, showing up repeatedly in my feed as ‘He releases a lion back into the wild, but then something amazing happens’ or some version of that. I recognized Kevin immediately, so I knew it was false. I did read the article, and watch the video, however, so I could say that I had. You can find the article and video here. Both the ‘bait tag’ and the title of the article state clearly that a lion is getting returned to the wild.

The truth, however, is that this is a lion Kevin bought as a cub, and then hand raised, and it is not being released into the wild – and has never even been in the wild. The author of the article clearly has no idea what’s actually going on, and has even tagged the post with hashtags like #wildanimals.

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Throughout the video, Kevin interacts with his own lions, yet he never talks about wild lions, their plight, or anything conservation related. He never makes it clear that he bought the animal in the video, or that it is a captive animal, or that it’s going to remain captive. He gives the viewer no objective, tangible information at all on lions. He discusses the lion’s unusually white coloring, but does not explain that he owns dozens of other white lions, instead, leaving the viewer with the sensation that this lion is somehow special. Besides stating ‘I don’t ever think for one moment that they’re domesticated’ Kevin does not address the fact that he’s playing with wild animals, nor that by doing so, he’s endangering both himself, and the lions. Instead he says that the reason he can interact with them is because ‘I have a relationship with them.’ This is – verbatim – the exact reasoning that every private big cat owner uses to justify the fact that they choose to keep a wild animal captive as a pet.

Richardson’s videos are perpetually shared, and touted as amazing feats of relationship between a man and his animals, and more often than not, they are portrayed incorrectly as animals being released into the wild, or ‘rescued for conservation’ when, in reality, he uses them to make movies and television shows, documentaries (which focus on him and his animals, rather than wild animals) and youtube videos showcasing both him and his lions and hyenas. While Richardson has spoken of conservation, and participated in conservation efforts outside his own sanctuary (which is not GFAS accredited, because, in part, of his direct interaction with his cats) he remains most known for all of those videos and movies which feature him playing with his own captive lions. Even the video I’ve linked to is basically a six minute commercial for Fixodent. It is undeniable that the selling point, and what viewers will remember most, is Richardson playing with the lions, and by using the lions to sell a product, Richardson is exploiting them.

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The last two people I’m going to talk about are not unlike Richardson.

The first as been around for many years, but I hadn’t heard of him until one of his videos appeared in my feed. The video itself is quite old too, and with 38 million+ views on youtube, I’m amazed I haven’t seen it before. His name is Sulo Karjalainen – the Bear Man of Finland – and his videos are featured on websites like ‘cute overload.com’ The one that showed up in my feed can be seen here, and had a catch phrase like ‘Only one man dares swim with a polar bear’.

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A celebrity in his homeland because of the ‘special bond’ he has with his bears, Sulo seems to interact with them on a daily basis, and has taught many of them to do tricks. He’s been featured on various sites. He first began by raising orphaned cubs, and if they couldn’t be released into the wild, he kept them. Currently, he owns six bears, and a number of lynxes, housing them at the Kuusamo Large Carnivore Centre.

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As there is a language barrier on many of the websites, it is difficult to find a great deal of information about Sulo, but it is clear that he considers conservation to be his main goal. Even though videos of him playing with his bears continue to crop up.

Similar to Sulo, Shaun Ellis the ‘Wolf Man’ of the US, supposedly shares a ‘special bond’ with his wolves. Though Ellis started out researching wolves, he soon fell into the roll of ‘special expert’ and began actually living with the wolves and interacting with them daily.

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After becoming a household name through several documentaries – all of which focused on Shaun living with the wolves and being ‘one of the pack‘ in a mirrored wolf-version of Kevin Richardson and his ‘pride’ of lions, Shaun has since relocated to the UK where he runs a center that offers courses on understanding wolf behavior, and dog behavior, and bizarrely enough, encounters with the wolf hybrids that Ellis breeds.

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The fact that he actively breeds wolf hybrids alone is a testament to how damaging his influence is. Ellis claims that the hybrids are ‘used extensively in his research‘ though it’s not clear how breeding and studying hybrid animals can actually benefit wild wolves. Despite that he makes money off of allowing the public to play with his hybrid animals, and even offers courses in learning how to interact with them the way he does, Ellis is regarded as a hero for conservation, something that boggles the mind when one considers that he propagates the crossbreeding of wild and domestic animals for profit. Obviously, neither of these facilities are GFAS accredited sanctuaries.

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I’ll end this post with probably the most recognizable group on the Internet today, the Black Jaguar White Tiger foundation. With over 4 million followers on Instagram, Eduardo Serio’s questionable ‘rescue’ foundation has become a social medial monopoly. They post thousands of videos portraying rampant mishandling of the animals in their care, do not believe in spaying or neutering their cats, and claim that ‘all is possible if you simply love each other’.

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Their foundation page hosts a sponsorship section in which you can choose to donate anywhere from $25.00 t0 $1,000 per month in exchange for rewards ranging from a simple certificate saying that you supported the foundation to a photograph of your ‘sponsored baby’,  bracelets, FaceTime calls with ‘your baby’, a free t-shirt every month, a cast of ‘your baby’s’ paw print, and a 2 day visit for 2 guests to the sanctuary that includes hotel and meal expenses.*

Startlingly, there is never a shortage of ‘babies’ to be sponsored.

To date Eduardo claims to have rescued near 200 big cats–primarily from circuses or places that wanted to use them as ‘photo props’ and insists that he’s given them the best life possible. Oddly, Eduardo does not seem to connect his own continual rotation of celebrity visitors, all of whom are allowed to hold, feed, play with and coddle his cats in return for donations and media exposure with the ‘photo prop’ life he ‘saved’ them from.

In addition, he cannot explain how nearly all of the ‘rescues’ are cub small enough to be held and played with, though they supposedly came from circuses, which arguably have no use for such young animals. There is no transparency to Black Jaguar White Tiger in any area of the foundation and thus it remains virtually impossible to discern what, if any, of Eduardo’s claims are true. Yet through the venue of social media, BJWT continues to rake in huge amounts of money through donations and backers, despite that the foundation itself consists of nothing more than a house and somewhere between 8-100 acres of land, not nearly enough space to proprietary house 200 big cats. Though the foundation is apparently registered as a “sanctuary” by Mexico BJWT is not a GFAS accredited sanctuary.

 

Unfortunately, there are many, many more ‘experts’ who exploit their animals even as they’re revered for their conservation efforts. I merely listed those who showed up in my newsfeed recently under the guise of releasing wild animals, or setting examples as to what we should all strive for in matters of conservation. For me, the opposite is true. They all set an example of what you should never do in the name of conservation.

I understand – before anyone comments in defense of anyone – that once a video is out there on the internet, it’s impossible for those in the video to monitor exactly how the public shares it, and the articles to which it might be attached. This is precisely why it is so very vital for those experts to be extremely cautious in what sorts of videos are released, and what sort of example they set.

So the next time a ‘feel good’ animal video or article pops up in your news feed, remember the Three ‘M’s of Mock Conservation. See if they apply to the article or video. If so, then think twice about sharing it, and instead consider leaving a thoughtful comment under it, urging people to dig a little deeper into the motives behind that video or photo. Remember, the more times a video or photo is shared, the more the lies within it are propagated and the longer they will endure.

Author: Artemis Grey

*This offer has been removed from the foundation’s website since the publication of this article.

 

There is No ‘But’ In the Word Conservation

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 isnt 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.

tumblr_loowclyMlV1qbo67vo1_1280 Joy with Elsa, considered ‘Conservation’

0Tourist who paid to play with lions, considered exploitation.

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.

16-year-old-bindi-irwin-crocodile-hunter-fathers-legacy-australia-zoo-4Bindi, with one of Australia Zoo’s tigers. Bindi remains a leading name in conservation.

Thailand-Tiger-Park-reopens-after-mauling-650x487 Tourist paying to play with an adult tiger, considered exploitation.

s-Steve-IrwinSteve feeding a tiger at conservation-based Australia Zoo

QGlZuLPTrainer feeding Hercules (a hybrid animal called a liger) at T.I.G.E.R.S, a group devoted to the conservation and preservation of rare and endangered species

61637656bd560c478e961aa9391c4df4Tourist participating in a pay-to-play scheme.

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.

400393 01: World-renowned illusionists and conservationists Siegfried & Roy pose with Pride, the Magical White Lion in this undated photo. The Las Vegas entertainers, honored as Magicians of the Century, perform at The Mirage where they have been the longest and most successful entertainers in the history of Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy of Siegfried & Roy/The Mirage via Getty Images)
Siegfried & Roy pose with Pride, the Magical White Lion. Many members of the public feel that Roy finally ‘got what he deserved’ after years of exploiting his big cats in his show.

5I9ZeAwThe 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.

2a242649face8e02afca920ae7e4dc29Eduardo’s foundation is strictly for conservation and rescue, he claims.

340x252-1432844013635669142439325897-543589299_BlackJaguarWhiteTiger_facebook.jpg?f4e9c5Eduardo, 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’.*29137009.sfimages

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”.

hercules_-_largest_living_cat_webpage2_guinness_world_records_500x388Hercules, of T.I.G.E.R.S. with a trainer. They advertise themselves as experts helping to preserve endangered and rare species.

rajani-ferrante-riding-liger-herculesHercules of T.I.G.E.R.S. with another trainer.

hqdefaultThe Lion Whisperer, defended as an expert conservationist with a ‘special bond’ by his fans, riding one of his ‘fellow pride members’.

1282976243119-adventure picsTourist participating in a pay-to-play exploitation of big cats.

Lion tamer riding one of his circus lionsLion tamer during his act, something that everyone who supports conservation would condemn as exploitation.

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.