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Why Do Captive Big Cats Attack their Owners?

Updated on October 1, 2014
Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa is an exotic pet owner, zoo attender, and plant-obsessed person and doesn't think there is anything wrong with that.

Lion Attack

Every time a captive big cat attacks in any type of zoological facility, ignorant statements abound while the story immediately steals major headlines. In addition, known special interest groups like the Humane Society of the United States and Big Cat Rescue inevitably step in to feed off of the hysterical reports to support their beliefs that animals do not belong in captivity.

Humans have a natural fear of large predators that certainly have every logical reason to exist within the confines of the wild. But what about animals in captivity?

I have made several arguments in the past rejecting the idea that captive wildlife is a significant threat to the public given that statistically speaking, people are far more likely to be attacked or even killed by domesticated dogs. Does this mean that interacting with pet dogs is more dangerous than doing so with a caged lion? Certainly not.

Note: This article was originally focused on the death of a female worker in a California sanctuary, but it is also a discussion on the causes of captive big cat attacks and the victims.


The odds of your chances of being attacked by large, 'wild' animals change dramatically depending on the situation.

Walking down a typical street, if I were to guess which animal species I were the most likely to be attacked by, my best guess would be a domesticated canine, even if lions were being kept nearby. However, if I’m in the cage with a lion, my chances of being attacked by one surge from near impossible to extremely likely.

This is especially true if I have:

  • No experience with this particular animal or the animal’s species,
  • Ignorance to wild animal behavior, or a mix of the two,
  • Lack both common sense and possess a youthful naivety about the fragility of life and how quickly it can be lost.

Contrary to a rampant popular belief, big cats rarely, if ever, attack their intruders because they are hungry and have a taste for Soylent Green.

In many facilities like the one Cous Cous the lion resided, these animals were either hand-raised, or have enjoyed much exposure to humans in such a way that they view the tall primates as equals or even as their superiors.

After these maulings occur, the animals usually do not even eat their victims (if they are left there long enough before the cat is shot). Recent reports now reveal that Couscous was fed and confined to another enclosure when he escaped and attacked the young intern.

What needs to be understood is that animals are not robotic objects or toys; they are subject to bad moods, hormonal outbursts, and territorial instincts, as well as a mix of the three just like humans to certain degrees are.

Big cats are not members of our societal moral codes and if their current psychology dictates a fight with an outmatched human, such an event will occur with ease. Many big cats will maintain a certain degree of respect for their human acquaintances until a challenge is evoked by the presence of that human on their 'territory'.

Even in the wild, this results in a confrontation with other lions. Humans are obviously no match for a big cat, and their body language revealing this will entice the animal to pursue a more violent attack.

Many keepers also tend to get used to an animal's behavior before it has hit sexual maturity.

Couscous was a 4 year old male lion, about the age that big cats really start honing in on hard-wired, defensive instincts.

Are Private Zoos Dangerous?

Organizations that have expressed anti-captivity sentiment are now opportunistically using the tragic death of this young employee to once again fabricate myths that there is a "growing epidemic" of people who want to own big cats as pets, even though the facility in which the fatal mauling occurred is not a private pet owning situation or any form of a poorly run sanctuary.

Contacting Big Cats

The idea of contact vs. a ‘hands off’ method of maintaining carnivores and other potentially dangerous mammals is controversial. While it is likely that there are talented people out there that have a natural gift of understanding animal behavior and animal ‘cues’, too many people think this about themselves falsely.

Even people who do possess these traits are always still at risk. We call these occupational hazards, and they must be firmly understood and comprehended. However, there are perfectly safe and responsible ways to maintain dangerous animals without ever laying a finger on them, and as a non-thrill seeker type who does not live to brag to others about experiences and travels, this method makes the most sense to me.

New reports now reveal that Dianna Hanson did not negligently enter the enclosure of the lion, but that she was cleaning the main cage of the animal when it escaped from a holding area and attacked. Therefore, it does not appear that the intern was at fault here, and the lion was likely to be reacting violently to her presence in his territory.

It is likely that many employees in different animal parks continue to engage in interacting with large felines and other potentially dangerous animals.

Some younger people tend to be bold, and there is even biological evidence that this is so. Some people also have a romanticized view of large cats that unfortunately often takes root from animated films that display a fictitious human-like demeanor in animals. Either way, no one really notices these reoccurring interactions until someone dies.

In other news, here are a few animal attacks that took place this week and only made coverage on the local news:


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    • profile image

      jameshmundyiv 4 months ago

      You do outstanding work. I have a few things on Big Cats you and others might be interested in, if I can figure out how to post my Microsoft Word work into the Hub. Been studying them, mainly Cougars & Cheetahs for 20 years but the info applies to all Big Cats. Are you on Phoenix Association? Email me at ""

    • Melissa A Smith profile image

      Melissa A Smith 20 months ago from New York

      I think they do. I guess I won't have any sympathy for you if you perish doing something you love. Where are these data samples?

    • profile image

      Matthew G Pimentel 20 months ago

      I'd like to revisit the "no bad dogs" discussion to state that while "good dogs" are capable of attacking, when you look at the data samples, you'll find those cases to be the outliers where the bulk of attacks occur by dogs that were either trained to be aggressive, abused, or neglected. And how many of those good dogs were treated or diagnosed for neurological impairments? I would stick to the claim that healthy dogs, when raised in a loving home, are very unlikely to attack anyone.

      As for the big cats, I don't think they belong in captivity, unless they are being treated at a qualified facility for health reasons. And that's mostly because their undisturbed natural habitat is a far better space for them to live a good life. No sympathy for owners attacked by big cats held captive.

    • etaCarinae profile image

      Sara Johnson 3 years ago from United States

      Very good hub. Big cats are wild animals that we sometimes forget to realize that's exactly what they are - you need to learn to really speak their language to avoid being attacked. Simply turning your back and walking briskly can trigger there natural instinct to pounce.

    • Melissa A Smith profile image

      Melissa A Smith 3 years ago from New York

      If every human got what they 'deserved', according to you, when they put their life at risk, no one would be left alive. I'm sure you've done plenty of stupid crap and no one has declared you need to die for it. Comments like yours are idiotic and lack humanity.

    • profile image

      Hillbilly 3 years ago

      If you own a pet lion you are stupid and deserve to get eaten.

    • Melissa A Smith profile image

      Melissa A Smith 3 years ago from New York

      Nameless you are making NO sense at all.

    • profile image

      hw shall remain nameless 3 years ago

      Likewise there is no good human. Each one of us is capable of snapping at any point, going postal or a murderous rampage. The only difference is that the human courts determine the justice for the case of the animal, humans also determine "percieved justice" to the animals' fate. Not a level playing field by any means.

      And Melissa still feels humans are superior to animals and denigrates anyone who disagrees.

    • profile image

      drew 3 years ago

      no animal lacks instincts wild or domesticated hoof stock kills more then any other exotic

    • Melissa A Smith profile image

      Melissa A Smith 4 years ago from New York

      That's 100% true Mackerels. The 'no bad dog' people love to ignore the many cases of formally 'good' dogs who have never been abused becoming harmful, sometimes even killing. Dogs are probably as domesticated as an animal can get, yet they certainly are not fool-proof either.

    • profile image

      Mackerels 4 years ago

      "Lions are wild animals with wild instincts. Dogs are domesticated. There is no bad dog, just a bad dog owner. "

      This is true in a sense that dogs cannot be morally "bad," as animals are amoral, but it's not true that dogs won't attack unless abused. This is a really ignorant and dangerous thing to think, and is probably why a lot of people get bitten by dogs.

      One of the first things people say when their dog seriously injures or kills someone: "I never knew he had it in him." I remember reading a sad article written by a couple who had their baby killed by their dog that they had raised from a puppy. They assumed their dog couldn't do any harm as they believed in the “it’s all in how you raise them” mantra. Unfortunately, they had to learn the hard way that even "good" dogs can attack.

      All animals have instincts. They're living creatures, not programmable robots. You can't breed them out of them. It’s best to realize that every dog has the potential to attack. Ignoring this only sets them up to fail, and then the dog has to pay, usually with its life, for your false beliefs.

    • Melissa A Smith profile image

      Melissa A Smith 4 years ago from New York

      I'm not trying to say that people should be afraid of dogs, the point is that most people accept and are not so bothered by the risks of getting mauled by a dog, or getting in a car crash, even if they are significantly higher than an exotic pet even looking at them the wrong way.

      Domestication has little to do with it; tigers would make great pets if they were the same size as dogs. Servals, caracals, and bobcats are dog-sized wild cats that have killed no people despite 'wild instincts', and bobs even possess the capability of killing deer.

      Dogs on the other hand manage to kill their share of people, including adults... although mostly elderly, the fact is that some of them have been selectively bred to fearlessly take down large animals while wild animals have little interest in biting off more than they can chew.

      Yet people fear anything that is 'wild' because they've seen too many movies of homicidal exotic cats with excessive energy. Dogs have become domesticated due to their personalities and plastic genome, not all animals can be domesticated, yet many dogs still have instincts that are either suppressed or enhanced by artificial selection.

      Socializing with people would do little to secure my rights to the animals I want to own or prevent me from losing my current ones. I consider everything I write to be positive, I'm not sure how it is negative. If I wrote about how great it was that people are banning exotics and spreading misinformation that would be a lie. That is, unfortunately what I'm interested in and insubstantial relationships with people is low on my priority list. I don't really have anything else, this is just the reality. It probably means I will die unhappy in this existence but I have no choice. See my hub: Why would someone want to own an exotic pet?

    • profile image

      Sarra Garrett 4 years ago

      Lions are wild animals with wild instincts. Dogs are domesticated. There is no bad dog, just a bad dog owner. Yes, the liklihood of people being killed by lions in the United States is far less than being attached by a dog, however, you are more likely to die in an automobile crash than you are to be killed by a dog. Geez. Melissa, you need to get out more and socialize with people. You are too young to be pent up all of the time. You are a beautiful young woman who has a lot going for herself. I understand your writing theory but gee, can you write something positive, I know you can. Show the love girl and let it out.

    • Melissa A Smith profile image

      Melissa A Smith 4 years ago from New York

      Did that help you blow off some steam qwerrty? You don't have to agree with my stance, I can't really argue that I'm not biased like pretty much every person is but uneducated? I strongly doubt that. I research this subject substantially. I don't expect you to come back here and explain your opinion.

    • profile image

      qwerrty 4 years ago

      This is a really uneducated and biased article.