Pet-A-Cub Programs – Don’t believe the hype and ‘know before you go’.

Walking with predator volunteer experiences – valuable conservation or not? A contentious issue in South Africa.

Within South Africa, the opportunity to walk with and get up to close to predators such as lions and tigers is a hugely lucrative opportunity for organisations offering this type of program due to the huge demand from overseas for these experiences. Many organisations will claim that such experiences are ‘conservation’ based or ‘raising awareness’ of the plight of the animals they promote – for the most part though, awareness and conservation are a long way from and have no bearing on the actual purpose of the offered program. These terms are often are used to cover up and mismarket to ‘well-intentioned’ potential volunteers the fact that, at the end of the day, the animals used are bred and provided purely for the entertainment of volunteers as a marketing ploy to attract unsuspecting visitors, ultimately to make a profit with little or no care for the future of they animal they have ‘purchased’ or ‘bred’ to provide what they offer.  Conservation?  On this basis, certainly not.

Volunteer World International, as an ethically focussed volunteer agency, is taking on this fight and urging all potential volunteers and agencies to South Africa to consider the effects of such ‘pet-a-cub’ programs, support to them, consequences of such and the ethicality of the marketing of these ‘experiences’. In real world terms, imagine this – from a very young age, a lion cub is handled daily by visitors, providing them with hands on experience of these amazing animals – great for the visitor, but what effect does this have on the animal? As a bare minimum, denied of a wild upbringing, the animal then becomes tame or at least accustomed to and unafraid of humans – what then when the animal grows larger? The animal is then too dangerous to be handled and too tame to be released thus what options does the animal then face? Either a life in captivity or sale into canned hunting – either way, conservation or raising awareness cannot be claimed to be the driving force of the program as no value to either is provided.  Many volunteer agencies though continue and try to mislead unsuspecting volunteers into believing that they would be contributing to ‘awareness’ or ‘conservation’ of the species through their contibution and visit. Scientific proof is available to substantiate the point from various reputable sources which confirm that not a single captive bred lion has ever been successfully released into a 100% wild environment.  Again, beneficial to conservation? Again, certainly not.

With huge demand for such experiences (and thus available money to be made) and the subsequent turnover of animals required to provide them, the number of animals involved in these practices and thus potential ongoing negative impacts are sizeable. On this basis alone, with the additional potential links to canned hunting programs in evidence from certain organisations currently receiving overseas volunteers to ‘pet-a-cub’, it would certainly appear obvious that any volunteer agency marketing these ‘experiences’ as ‘conservation focussed’ or ‘raising awareness’, are seriously misleading their clients with the intent to make a ‘quick buck’.  Conservation…?

The secondary effects of such programs are also sizeable and whilst the direct effects are easily identifiable (direct effects include the number of animals that are bred and produced to provide these sort of experiences and the subsequent links to canned hunting), the secondary effects though are maybe not so immediately obvious. To explain, consider that if 100 international volunteers come to South Africa wanting to actively assist in genuine conservation work, 50 of whom then visit a ‘pet-a-cub’ program under the misapprehension they are doing ‘good’. Not only does this substantiate and support the ‘pet-a-cub/canned hunting’ industry whilst providing no conservation value at all, it also waters down the support that is then received by the ‘not for profit’ rehabilitation centres and charities that rely on volunteer visits to fund their ongoing work and ultimately, on many occasions, have to pick up the pieces and privately fund the care of animals bred purely for profit by unscrupulous operators with no consideration for the animals future.  Doubly damaging.

Despite the current huge demand for this type of experience, ethical volunteer agencies should be encouraging all volunteers instead to attend projects where these stunning animals can be viewed where they are meant to be viewed, in the wild. As a prerequisite though, no volunteer agency or program should be allowed or willing to mismarket these so called experiences in the way that is currently undertaken as no regulation exists whatsoever.

In summary – the facts:

  • It is a proven scientific fact that no captive bred lion has ever been successfully released into a 100% wild environment.
  • Cubs utilised and bred specifically for pet-a-cub programs endure a completely unatural life – bred to provide entertainment.
  • Due to demand, huge numbers of animals are associated with this ‘industry’.
  • The huge numbers of animals bred for this ‘purpose’ have not substantiated wild lion populations.
  • There are strong links from certain pet-a-cub experiences to canned hunting whereby cubs, once they have served their ‘purpose’ being petted are sold to the hunting trade where they generate further revenue serving as the target for a hunters gun.
  • On the basis of the above, and with NO proven benefits to conservation, certain volunteer agencies continue to mislead unsuspecting volunteers and mismarket these experiences.

To ‘tar’ all programs with the same brush would be wrong as many do undertake very good work and for those volunteers definitely intent on pursuing this type of experience, you are urged to ask the following questions to your agency prior to booking and ensure you are happy with their answers:

  1. What is the genuine purpose of the program?
  2. Where are the animals sourced from?
  3. Can the birth mother of the cubs be viewed?
  4. What happens to the animals once they can no longer be handled by visitors?

For further unbiased information on this subject, it is recommended to read the Panthera (a worldwide organisation of leading big cat experts implenting and developing valid conservation programs: WWW.PANTHERA.ORG ) blog HERE.

VWI are the first and only volunteer agency anywhere in the world providing direct education of and discouraging volunteers from choosing to visit ‘pet-a-cub’ programs through open marketing and media – based solely in South Africa, VWIs local knowledge ensures they are able to live up to their ethical promises.

Great service to the volunteer through local, comprehensive knowledge and experience, 100% sustainable and ethical programmes – this is how volunteering should be undertaken.