Why The End Will Never Justify The Means When It Comes To Conservation

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

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The Greatest Act On Earth

With the events currently taking place at the Missouri State Fair in regard to the tigers being exhibited there, the ICARUS team felt that it would be a good idea to address a few things relating to the matter. During this investigation there have been varying opinions as to the condition and treatment of the tigers involved. The USDA has received hundreds (at minimum, full numbers have not been disclosed) of complaints about the tigers, but at the same time the trainers of the big cats claim they are well cared for, and numerous attendees of the show, have claimed that the cats look fine, and seem to love their handlers. So, how does a member of the public decide whether or not an exotic animal being used in a show like this is, or is not, suffering from abuse or mistreatment?

Firstly, don’t be afraid to do research. Google can be a very good source of information, so long as you are careful to ‘check your sources’. Don’t take one webpage and use it singularly, check out a number of pages or results. If you find numerous pages stating the same problems, then likely, there are legitimate issues. The best thing to do if you have questions in regard to a certain group, or animal’s condition is to take a few moments on your smart phone to research the subject. This could be as simple as a google image search for ‘healthy elephant’ You can then look at the resulting photographs, while looking at the elephant standing in front of you. It will, at the least, give you a basic idea of whether whatever you’re seeing that seems strange is, in fact strange, or if you’re finding dozens of different animals which all look similar. In the same vein, it’s often fairly easy to learn whether or not specific shows or animal trainers have a history of violations or issues by simply Googling their name. Likewise, if the questionable trainer or owners claim to be aiding with conservation by owning the animals, a quick Google search can counter that. Many times trainers will claim to be aiding in the conservation of white tigers, or ligers when, in fact, there has never been a wild population of white tigers, or ligers. The truth is that white tigers are a genetic mutation achieved through extreme inbreeding (and for every white tiger you see, dozens of normal colored tiger cubs, or grossly deformed white tiger cubs have been destroyed) and ligers are created by the forced crossbreeding of a lion and a tiger, which, again, often results in genetic maladies and deformities, and a very shortened lifespan for the cats.

Do not look at the subject of captive wild animal welfare in terms of ‘I’m just a member of the public and they’re the experts’. It’s not the mindset you’d have if you were going to a car dealership to buy a car, is it? You would educate yourself on the car you wanted and its features. It’s not the mindset you would have when buying a house, or booking a vacation, either. Instead, you’d research the housing market or the area you’re planning to go on vacation. Most people aren’t professionals at everything they do. You don’t need to have decades of experience in order to have a basic understanding of situations. So if you feel that something is amiss in a situation involving captive exotic animals, but the owners/trainers assure you that everything is fine, don’t feel like you have no choice but to accept their answers.

Remember this very important fact when it comes to traveling shows that involve captive exotic animals: The trainers for these shows are actors. They might have a experience with the animals involved, and they might have raised those animals from adolescence, but they are, first and foremost, actors. And the show is just that. A show. Their number one priority is to make money from people like you who are paying to watch, just as a television show’s number on priority is viewership. Keep in mind the times you’ve seen a movie wherein the onscreen chemistry between two actors was electric, but long after the blockbuster was done with, the public discovered that in real life the two actors absolutely hated each other, and nothing of the ‘electric chemistry’ that seemed to exist on screen, actually existed at all. It was simply an illusion created by two very talented actors. So the truth is, these trainers might not care about the animals in their show at all. Maybe they do, but it’s completely possible that they are simply putting on an act.

Another vital thing to consider is the fact that the animals in these shows do not have a choice in where they are and what’s being done to them. Many times, the public sees these animals ‘showing affection’ to their handlers, and they take those actions at face value. What bears remembering is the fact that from the time these animals enter the ‘arena’ for a show, to the time they exit it, they are performing and following commands from their trainers. Therefore, any ‘show of affection’ is likely nothing more than yet one more subtle trick performed for the audience. People often find such a suggestion offensive, but when one objectively looks at the fact that the animals are wholly dependent on their trainers for food, shelter and any other need, and that they’ve been trained to respond to commands – sometimes through violence – then it seems much more reasonable to think that their ‘affection’ might simply be trained response. If a human child is kidnapped and raised by someone other than their parents, they’re still considered prisoners by the public. They often remain with their abusers, even if they’re suffering, and will lie to authorities and tell them that their abusers are kind and caring. We understand innately that in the case of human children, this is a direct result of the abuse they’ve suffered during their captivity, but for some reason, much of the public does not make the same connection in the case of captive wild animals.

But why should you believe groups like ICARUS instead of the trainers and exhibitors of these captive exotic animals? What makes us qualified to assert that the animals in these situations might be suffering? The truth is, only you can decide who to believe. All we can do is present you with scientific facts.

However, some things to consider in situations like the one out at the Missouri State Fair, or any similar situation include:

Is the person, or persons in charge of the animals in question using the animals to make money?

Does their business depend directly on exhibiting the animals?

If an institution calls itself a sanctuary, do they allow the public to have direct contact with the animals, holding and playing with them in exchange for either monetary donation, or publicity?

Does the person or persons in charge of the animals claim that they are breeding and exhibiting them to ‘promote conservation’?

Does the person or persons in charge of the animals claim to have a special bond with them? Do they claim that the animals perform because they want to? And that the animals enjoy performing?

In the case of groups who are opposed to captive exotic animals, do the members act openly hostile?

Do they engage in violence, and reckless acts, like opening cages and setting animals free?

Do they promote violence in general?

If the answer to any of these questions is Yes, then there is cause for concern. Justifying the exploitation of captive exotic animals is a clear sign that those doing the exploiting do not feel like exploitation is wrong if the ‘right’ people are doing it. And in contrast, if those who do not believe in animal exploitation endorse or call for violence agains their opponents, then they are more interested in making a political statement than they are in the welfare of the animals.

Responsible animal advocates, like the members of team ICARUS, will calmly state why they are opposed to the exploitation of animals, and will offer supporting facts. They will be willing to work with others to solve the problem, and will never suggest that violence or slandering is the answer. We might vehemently disagree with the actions of trainers and private owners, but we will never condone harming or otherwise attacking those persons. The way to create change is through outreach and the spread of information. We don’t want the public to agree with us because they believe what we’re saying, we want them to believe in us and what we’re doing because it’s the right thing for the animals.

There is no function for the public performance of a captive exotic animal other than for human entertainment. There is no need for them to ‘earn their keep’ because there is no reason for them to be ‘kept’ at all. The only thing that requires a wild animal to be held captive is for purposes of exploitation. This is why the ICARUS team strongly disagrees with the practice of allowing the public to have direct contact with cubs or adult animals – even by well meaning sanctuaries. Such activities cross the line into exploitation.

We understand the need for sanctuaries to support themselves, and public tours which do not involve touching the animals are a great way to do that. There are many ways for people to support the protection of captive wild animals, that doesn’t involve exploiting them, you just have to look. In fact, GFAS accredited sanctuaries must abide by strict regulations in regard to how their animals are kept or handled.

For more information about captive exotic animal and how to protect them, check out the Facebook page of ICARUS for links to reputable sanctuaries and rescue organization. And remember you have the power to educate yourself, make informed decisions, and help animals in need.

Author: Artemis Grey