Below is just some of the correspondence we have received from people that volunteered at captive breeding projects. It illustrates just how careful one should be when choosing a project.
I would be happy to tell you about the lion park I was at. It’s called XXXXXXX, and it is right outside XXXXX. I went there thinking it was a conservation park, but soon realized it was nothing of the sort. They had over 70 lions living there, and their main tourist “draw” was that people could come in and “hug a cub”. When I was there, we had three 6-month old cubs, six 3-month olds, and three newborns. My job was to take care of the cubs, and supervise the tourists playing with them. When I first got there, the newborns were not born yet. They had us feeding the other cubs domestic cat food, blended with raw milk. I questioned this, and was told that the University of Pretoria said it was a good diet. For the adult lions, they would collect dead livestock from the community and feed them that, once or twice a week. They would also go shoot sick livestock and give that to the lions. Luckily, by the time the newborns arrived, they had hired a girl to work there that knew about lions, she was a zoologist and she helped change the nutrition of the cubs. The newborns were bottle-fed an excellent formula, and the other cubs were put on meat.
I was there during the holiday period, which was the busiest time of the year for them. We had huge amounts of people everyday, and of course they all wanted to play with the cubs. The cubs would get so tired and upset from all these people, and I and my co-workers would try to give them a rest, only to have the owner come out and let more people in. The newborns were kept in the restaurant from the time they were 10 days old, and people got to play with them when they were 6 weeks old.
My co-workers and I became very frustrated with the situation, and also very suspicious about what they were going to do with all of their lions. We confronted the owners as a group, but only received the same spiel about how “they sell their lions to other game parks and reserves, and they would never sell them for hunting”. We asked if they could tell us specifically where some of their lions went, and they just hemmed and hawed about this place or that, but could never give us a straight answer. I was there for 6 weeks, and I never heard of any lion going anywhere. When I was leaving, they were in the process of mating two white lions, as that is their big draw, and they tout them as rare.
Besides lions, they had 4 caracals, a genet, a crocodile (which escaped twice while I was there!), 3 meerkats (they had like 20 before I got there until the owner’s daughter decided to make them vegetarians and they died), a troop of vervet monkeys, a bush pig, 4 African wildcats, and three malnourished tigers.
I could go on and on about them, I was very upset with the whole experience.
I have recently completed a month’s volunteer work at XXXXXXXXX, near XXXX. I was one of 6 volunteers, all of whom have serious doubts as to the standards of the park, but have no idea who to
contact with complaints. We tried to address many of the issues with the owners while there – especially the conditions in which their three youngest cubs (14 weeks) were kept – they were penned in to a 5mx2m enclosure from 9am to 5pm and subjected to constant handling by the public throughout that time every day with no breaks. They were clearly distressed however when we addressed this issue, the lion ‘expert’ there told us we were not qualified to judge whether the animals were under stress or not. Needless to say, when
you spend 6 days a week for 4 weeks with three cubs you know them well enough to see that they are happy and calm in the mornings and stressed out, scratching and biting even us, by 3pm after untold numbers of members of the public have been prodding, stroking and trying to pick them up – despite us telling them they are too big at over 20 kilos each. When we addressed the issue with the owner she told us that the cubs were there to make money, that all the adult lions in their park were subjected to the same handling as youngsters and that they are all fine from it, and that most importantly the cubs are there to make money for the park by charging for handling and that their welfare is a secondary concern.
I hope you can help with some advice on how to make a formal complaint somewhere.