Big cats lose claws
By NEIL REID – Sunday News Last updated 05:00 25/10/2009
Big cats featured on The Lion Man hit TV show are suffering after having their paws ‘mutilated’ so they could perform with their handlers, says the wildlife park troubleshooter now overseeing the animals’ welfare.
Some 29 of the 37 lions and tigers at Zion Wildlife Gardens have been declawed – a practice condemned as ‘barbaric’ by consultant Tim Husband, hired after the fatal mauling of Zion ranger Dalu Mncube in May.
“One only needs to watch these animals trying to eat to see how they struggle to grip their meat without having the use of claws to hold it. To my mind it’s absolutely barbaric,” Husband told Sunday News.
“There is only one reason a perfectly sound, healthy animal would have its paws mutilated in this way. And it is so they can ‘perform’ with their handlers.”
Declawing wasn’t like a human having their finger nails removed, he said. It was like the first joints of all your fingers being cut off.
“Often what happens is the bones grow differently, the animal goes lame, throws its hip out. Every one that has been declawed here will eventually down the track have problems with their hips and backs,” Husband said.
Sunday News has obtained the findings of a Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry investigation into declawing at Zion. The 12-page report considered the possibility of charges being laid over the declawing. But the fact most of the controversial operations, from 2000-2008, were supervised by MAF vets was “problematic to any prosecution”.
Declawing took place before “Lion Man” Craig Busch’s mother Patricia took over the running of Zion from him last year.
The MAF report revealed that from 2003-2005 – during which The Lion Man series began screening – “there was a strong commercial focus to improve the income of the zoo in order to upgrade enclosures and animal containment conditions”.
“This was being achieved through filming for television, advertising of the zoo and public participation and interaction with the animals, and through various related promotions of the Zion Zoo and its lions and tigers,” the report said.
“Front pad declawing was deemed necessary by Zion’s principal veterinarian at the time in order to facilitate close interaction with both handlers and veterinarians, and the need for a commercial income stream to be generated by Zion.”
“Key drivers” given by the vet – whose name was withheld – behind his declawing of the big cats included “the animals were being used commercially to permit the financial survival of the zoo”, and “close contact with handlers and film crews was required and personal safety was an issue”.
Ad Feedback The vet considered the practice as being in the animals’ “best interests” as it meant they wouldn’t have to undergo an alternative of repeated sedation. Declawing was the “lesser of two evils”.
Craig Busch was unavailable for comment, but his spokeswoman said in a statement that he had acted “with the best interests of his cats uppermost in his mind”.
It said he had the first tigers he brought into New Zealand, in 2000, declawed after having “sought and followed advice from experts in America”. Two of the big cats had already been declawed before being given to him.
Busch’s statement said: “The cats have never shown any negative effects … In fact one declawed lion at another zoo lived to the age of 22 and never showed any ill effects from declawing.”
Busch had “always acted on the advice from experts in the field”. Declawing had been carried out in the presence of MAF vets.
Reasons for the practice were: “To prevent cats from injuring each other”, “To create a safer environment for human interaction with the cats” and “reducing damage to their natural surroundings, for example trees”.
But Husband – Zion’s current operator and co-owner of Australian-based zoo consultancy company Zooworks – described declawing operations as “mutilations”. “To be honest, it just ruins your animal,” Husband said. “Thankfully, this declawing has been stopped and will never raise its ugly head again at Zion Wildlife Gardens.”
The practice was also condemned by veteran American lion and tiger handler Karl Mitchell.
Speaking from his Big Cat Encounters ranch in Pahrump, 76km from Las Vegas, Nevada, Mitchell said: “The claws on the cats are like finger tips.
“If you watch them when they are eating, they hold their food with their claws, like you would hold a hamburger or a chicken bone. So to not have them is like giving an apple to someone with no teeth.”