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Playing With Lions

Updated on August 7, 2016

Playing With Lions and Tigers

Playing with lions or tigers may appear to be a thrilling and risky undertaking. It is both of these things and more. The adrenaline rush can be a real buzz to the first timer and never goes completely. Some people do not need to 'play' but get just as big a kick out of posing for a photograph with a chained, trained and/or drugged big cat or bear.

Playing with Tigers and Lions is not clever or magical in any way. There is no communion of souls there is no special gift involved.

Having a big cat to play with is initially a little time consuming and does require some dedication. All it really takes is for an abandoned or deliberately pulled lion or tiger cub to be hand reared. This will mean some sleepless nights preparing milk formula, feeding and toilet duties. Done with kindness and care the cat will become 'tame'. Large cats can, when reared this way, appear to behave as soft as your average domesticated tabby. They are not! They are not domestic and are never truly tame. There is always a risk. They are big, strong, well armed and unpredictable. It is the 'tame' Lions, Tigers and Bears which will kill and injure keepers and handlers each year, not the 'wild' ones. Each regularly handled big cat is, quite literally, an accident waiting to happen.

These are not pets, these are not toys, these are not children. They are wild animals and are not meant to be played with. It isn't clever and does not do the animals any favours. In fact, quite the opposite.

Lion Cub in Seattle 1933

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Declawing Cats For Convenience

No amount of experience will prevent accidents though years will help one read the signs and give one a 'feel' and delay the inevitable. Some less experienced 'handlers/trainers' will cruelly declaw 'their' Big Cats and so eliminate one of the main risks.

It has been suggested by the ill informed that if declawing was cruel and painful that the cat would never forgive the owner. Using that argument every circumcised baby would hate its parents. Declawing IS cruel. Not only is it painful, unnatural and unnecessary but it does lasting, permanent damage to the cat. Along with shortening the animals lifespan it causes arthritis and other skeletal damage.

St Gerasim

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Is it ever necessary to handle large cats?

No it is not. Not in a zoo environment. If it has been necessary to hand rear then once the cub or cubs is feeding independently then they should be 'hacked back' into its/their natural zoo environment. It is perfectly possible for the person who reared the animal to maintain a safe relationship 'through the bars' if they see the need.

Those people who continue a risky 'hands on' relationship with fully grown big cats do it for themselves not for the animals. Such people do it because they thrive on the attention they get from other people, in effect to show off. They do it because they cannot let go of 'their' baby. They do it because they are little more than circus performers and this is how they get their thrills and for some of them it is how they make their money.

This really is not fair on the big cat, bear, chimpanzee or monkey because it always remains an accident waiting to happen.

These 'hands on' approaches contribute nothing to husbandry, research or conservation. They are pure 'look how clever I am antics'.


Kevin Richardson - A statistic waiting to happen

The exceptions to hand rearing

There are exceptions to hand rearing. That is presuming that hand rearing WAS absolutely essential at one point. The exception is really limited to one reason and one reason only. This is where the parents were hand reared and the relationship maintained to the degree that the dam accepts its human 'foster parent' and/or 'adopted pride member' to touch her cubs and so build a relationship with those too. It takes an exceptional type of person to do such a thing and as far as I am aware there are very few such people around.

Kevin Richardson immediately springs to mind. His relationship with his animals IS special. He has not trained in the conventional sense nor has he declawed or let other people into the enclosures with his animals. That said none of what he has done actually contributes either to the welfare of the animals.

I suppose that at some point that some scientist will eventually come up with the 'new discovery' that mother animals are 'proud' of their new babies. I have had four mother chimpanzees present their various young to me (through bars) to touch on the day they were born. I have had the same experience with both lions and leopards (though not on the day of birth). Mother animals are proud!

Kevin Richardson has built upon this fact to establish what is possibly a unique understanding with his captive animals. He is clearly a dedicated and exceptional young man. He is a true 'Lion Man' if such a person exists. Sadly though Mr Richardson is an accident waiting to happen. Mr Richardson is fully aware of the possibility and accepts this.

No-one else is put at risk.

Lion Portrait

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Photo by:

Cash For Conservation

There can be little doubt that some zoos will and do raise money for conservation related causes by hosting 'posing' or walk out sessions with big cats. In some cases the amount raised can be quite substantial. Sadly however this is not why these collections continue with this outdated practice. They do it as a commercial draw and the 'conservation cash' amounts to no more than excuse for bad practice and as a bribe to conservation bodies to keep their mouths shut. Conservation does need cash.

Where these collections use white tigers the practice is doubly wrong. The situation becomes worse still when such large cats are deliberately pulled as cubs specifically for handling sessions or taken from their parents at the barest pretence of an excuse. It may seem scarcely credible but there are zoos which deliberately pull young cats from their parents with the argument that they can do a better job of rearing them than can the true mother. No they can't....this is just an excuse (and a pitiful one at that) so that they can hand rear and deliberately humanise the big cats.

Similarly such places argue that there is little likelihood of Lions or Tigers ever being returned to the wild. This is hardly an excuse to hand rear and humanise. The modern good zoo does not foresee return to the wild in the immediate future but to manage and maintain genetically viable populations for a possible return at some as yet unknown date. It would be pointless to return any species to an environment under any form of threat or where an existing population was safe and stable.

Zoos which promote Big Cat Handling, Posing and Walks in a seemingly 'humane' manner do it for profit. They send out a message that what they are doing is okay, that it is permissable, that it is right. This is picked up by second rate establishments the world over who cruelly exploit their animals. This is clearly the case in the Tiger Temple, Sri Racha Tiger Zoo amongst others which are included in The Zoo Hubs. Far better that 'humane' zoos cease the practice so that a worldwide ban can be called for. Good Zoos do not handle tigers to raise money and still manage to collect for conservation.

The South Lakes Wild Animal Park in Cumbria, England has raised £618,276.42  for tiger conservation in Sumatra. This money was collected between 1st January 2005 and the summer of 2010. This remarkable amount of money was raised by giving public talks at tiger feeding sessions. There was no handling, no petting, no stroking, no walking, pulling or hand rearing.

Petting A White Tiger

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A Souvenir Lion Photograph

In some parts of Africa having your photograph taken with a Lion is a big part of the tourist scene. Few give it a second thought, hand over their dollars and go home with a snap of them feeding a lion cub or posing with a half grown animal.

Why are they with the Lion at all? Why is it not with its mother? Why is it not in a pride, living with its own kind? The argument may be presented that it was taken because the mother did not know how to feed it. This is no more than an excuse. The cubs are pulled so that their mother will quickly become pregnant again. This happens in Thailand and China too. In fact in every posing establishment.

Such establishments need a constant flow of cubs and young animals ready and available for the next group of tourist to pose with.

Apart from the doubtless cruelty of the endless procession of handlers the cubs quickly become humanised. They are useless as candidates for return to the wild if a suitable piece of really wild wild could be found. No these cubs are destined for the canned hunt market. They will be placed in large enclosures where a different type of tourist will pay to shoot and kill them. They too will have their photographs taken with the lion, albeit DEAD.

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Submit a Comment
  • Peter Dickinson profile imageAUTHOR

    Peter Dickinson 

    8 years ago from South East Asia

    Thanks Ashley.

  • AshleyVincent profile image


    8 years ago from Thailand

    Very interesting and thought-provoking read Peter. Equally interesting was your admission of having been caught up in the desire to have your own picture taken with a variety of different animal species in the past, though your further travels and experiences had you taking a different view of all this.

    As with most things, it's education that brings about a greater understanding and appreciation of the consequences that may come of certain actions we take while still uninformed. As such, it's completely understandable that most anyone with a heart would melt at the opportunity to have close contact with, say, a Lion cub, and how many people wouldn't love to have a photographic keepsake to remember the experience by?

    But as you found, a greater awareness of the possible ramifications of such encounters would surely bring about a change in attitude for most, or at least most that really care about animals and their welfare.

    I've had privileged encounters in both a special reserve in South Africa, with two Lion cubs and a Caracal cub, and over here in Thailand at our local zoo, with two Siberian Tiger cubs, three Lion cub, and most recently, two Clouded Leopard cubs, all in my capacity as a professional wildlife photographer. Strangely enough, though felines have always been my passion and top of my favourite animals list, and I have on occasion stroked these all too playful and delightful cubs during photo sessions, I rarely feel compelled to touch them at all.

    I think the reason for this is I also believe that no matter if wild animals are born, raised and live their entire lives in captivity in close proximity to human contact, they will always be "wild" by Nature's design, and it's unnatural for humans to live side by side with them, let alone constantly handle and play with them.

    Anyone who has had the privilege of close contact with wild feline cubs, and has any true powers of observation, it's easy to see that most "big cat" cubs already show natural predatory tendencies within the space of a few short months, whether it be with their own kind or in play with humans. While laying on the ground in the reserve over in South Africa trying to photograph the four month old male Lion cub, the six month old female Lion cub was continually trying to sneak up on me from behind. One time I let her climb on my back without me moving to see what she'd do, and though I can't honestly say I was scared, a chill ran through me soon as I realised she was trying to bite down on my neck.

    While I have no formal education when it comes to animals behaviour, I've watched enough wildlife documentaries to know that big cats like Lions inevitably go for the kill by way of bites to the neck, to sever the spinal cord, or to the throat to bring about asphyxiation. Cubs no doubt learn from watching adults, but they're also born with a natural instinct for this, regardless of whether they're born in captivity or the wild, and I'm sure this instinct stays with them for the duration of their lives, which is why I think Kevin's approach to all this is somewhat misguided to say the least.

    Hope this response isn't too long Peter (can hardly describe it as a comment I guess!); I'm a bit new to this blogging thing and you tend to write about issues for which I share a passion, so I'm thinking it'll be okay for me to engage in this way. Just let me know if I'm ever going on too long though and I'll try to curtail my words some ;^)

    All the best :^)


  • Peter Dickinson profile imageAUTHOR

    Peter Dickinson 

    10 years ago from South East Asia

    Bard of Ely - Thank you for the 'awesome'. I appreciate it because the hub was written from the heart.

  • Bard of Ely profile image

    Steve Andrews 

    10 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

    This is a brilliant hub, Peter, in which you make many very valid points! Gets my vote and tagged as 'awesome!'

  • Peter Dickinson profile imageAUTHOR

    Peter Dickinson 

    10 years ago from South East Asia

    H P Roychoudhury - I agree it is both of these things. Sadly though it sends out the wrong messages and animals suffer around the world because of it.

  • H P Roychoudhury profile image

    H P Roychoudhury 

    10 years ago from Guwahati, India

    It is amazing and exciting too.

  • Peter Dickinson profile imageAUTHOR

    Peter Dickinson 

    10 years ago from South East Asia

    Cindy - Thanks for reading. There have been a few bear people who became one with the bear these past few years. Nobody ever learns because it will never happen to them.

  • Cindy Letchworth profile image

    Cindy Letchworth 

    10 years ago from Midwest, U.S.A.

    Yes Kevin does look like an exceptional man, however I'm with you, he is an accident waiting to happen. It reminds me of a show I saw where this man feeds wild bears in his backyard. I've forgotten where he lives but it's in a remote area. This man fully believes it is his destiny to be "one with the bear". It's remarkable to watch but seems fatalistic in the same sense.

  • Peter Dickinson profile imageAUTHOR

    Peter Dickinson 

    10 years ago from South East Asia

    Wife Who Saves - In a perfect world there would be no zoos. Sadly it is far from perfect and we need zoos, good zoos.

  • profile image

    Wife Who Saves 

    10 years ago

    I agree with what you have written - the cubs should be nursed by their mothers and live in a pride. It would be nice to see more nature preserves and fewer zoos. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Peter Dickinson profile imageAUTHOR

    Peter Dickinson 

    10 years ago from South East Asia

    Thank you Russell D. I have never seen a lion in the wild. Maybe one day.

  • Russell-D profile image


    10 years ago from Southern Ca.

    Peter -- the closest we ever came to a Lion was in a jeep in the Masai Mara - coming around a grove of bushes to find a huge roadside boulder with a female and 2 cubs fast asleep in the afternoon heat. We stopped close enough to touch them - but no one did. The picture, was strong enough to get me a cover once. Keep being interesting (and thirsty), you're fun to read. David Russell

  • Peter Dickinson profile imageAUTHOR

    Peter Dickinson 

    10 years ago from South East Asia

    Hello, hello - Thank you for reading. I know that this hub will upset a few friends and colleagues of mine when they read it. Zoo people love to get their photographs taken with big cats just like anybody else. I admit that I have done it and somewhere hidden away in a box somewhere are photos of me with a multitude of different beasts. It took my hitting the road and a lot of thought to realise how much abuse results from hand rearing and handling. We must set an example in good zoos not to handle and so stop the bad zoos from doing it.

  • Hello, hello, profile image

    Hello, hello, 

    10 years ago from London, UK

    Sorry. but I don't believe in somebody handling them. Why make such a show? I think it is lot to do with man handle beast; but they can't. I believe that animal is an animal, even the old moggi and dog, and treat them like that. I enjoyed reading you hub and watching the video

  • Peter Dickinson profile imageAUTHOR

    Peter Dickinson 

    10 years ago from South East Asia

    sabu singh - I am pleased you enjoyed it. Thank you for reading.

  • sabu singh profile image

    sabu singh 

    10 years ago

    Thank you for this informative Hub, Peter and the incredible video on Kevin Richardson.


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