Can we pet some of the cats?
That's almost always the first question out of the mouths of people who are contemplating visiting Big Cat Rescue, or said almost immediately upon arrival. After 25+ years of this unbelievably stupid question, I nearly bite my tongue in half in order to calmly explain all of the reasons why that is cruel to the cubs, and their mothers, and why it is disrespectful and dangerous. I tell myself they just don't know, and I need to say it in a way that doesn't sound like I think they are either ignorant or selfish.
But there really are only two reasons that people want to pet big cats.
They are ignorant.
They are selfish.
Forgive me for being blunt, but if you can walk an hour and a half in my shoes (and I will condense that tour time to about 5 minutes here) then maybe you can help me find a way to get the message out better than I have. At this point I'm considering doing one of those roadside sign campaigns, like the old Burma Shave ads. As people drive the quarter mile of dirt road to our gate, maybe I could post signs that say, No Cub Petting, No, You Can't Pet the Tigers, Absolutely Not! You Are NOT Going to Pet Wild Cats Here! but given what I hear on my tours, I don't think it would help.
Our website is all about educating people as to why cub handling is cruel and why we go to such great lengths to prevent our keepers from ever coming in contact with the cats. There is nothing in our tour ticketing process that would make someone think they could touch a lion or tiger here.
All of our tours start the same; we have people sign a release form but we assure them that we are a NO TOUCH facility, so they won't be coming in contact with the big cats.
Then we show them a video with all the rules, including quite a bit focusing on making sure they keep their hands on their side of the barricades that are about 4-5 feet from the cages so that they don't come in contact with the cats.
Then I lead them into the sanctuary and start out by trying to head them off at the pass. I know what they are going to say. Despite being told twice (or more), the first words out of their mouths once the tour begins will be, "Are there any big cats we can pet?" So I just address it before giving them a chance to open their mouths and state again that we don't touch the cats here. I explain that even I don't touch them unless it is for some medical purpose to save their lives, and even then, I don't go in cages with the cats unless they are restrained by the vet or locked up. I tell them that:
- The main reason there is so much big cat abuse is because people will pay to pet cubs.
- The cubs are ripped from their mothers, when only hours or days old, to be used extensively and then discarded when they get too big.
- The cubs never get to return to their mothers and suffer all kinds of health and psychological issues from being separated.
- Cats are 12 times stronger, pound for pound, than humans are, and would kill us just in play.
- None of the cats bred for cub handling serve any sort of conservation purpose.
- None of the big cats bred in cages can ever be released back to the wild.
- Cubs who were used and discarded sometimes end up in the illegal trade for their parts.
- Breeding big cats for life in cages provides a smokescreen for illegal activities like poaching.
- Our keepers spend two years caring for bobcats and servals before they can care for the lions, tigers & leopards who could kill them.
- Even though we provide as much space and enrichment as possible, there is no way to humanely keep wild cats captive.
At the end of all of that, invariably, the guest will ask, "So when do we get to pet a cub?"
At that point, I usually want to just escort them right back to the parking lot, refund their tour fee and tell them to go educate themselves but that's not going to happen. These people have been brought into my world because they need educating and they probably aren't going to get it anywhere else. I'm dumbfounded at how they have come to be so uneducated about wild cats. Why is it ubiquitous that people expect they should be able to pet a lion or a tiger or even a bobcat. What planet are they from where that's OK?
You may think I am ranting after just having a bad group on my tour, but at least 90% of the tours I give have someone, or everyone, on them asking REPEATEDLY to pet a big cat or a cub. So, I keep the tour going, trying to manage my tone, and repeating to them, in different ways, dumbing it down with each progressive response, to explain why they are not going to pet a wild animal here and why it is cruel to do so. I explain why we don't breed exotic cats for life in cages, and that all of our cats who live together are spayed or neutered, to prevent any "accidents."
And invariably, they will continue to ask if they can pet a cub or a big cat as we continue our walk.
By the end of the tour I'm usually exhausted from having to manage my temper for an hour and a half. Some people will have "gotten it" and that makes it worth while. Others will ask if there are other places they can go to pet a cub, and all I can do is look at them in utter disbelief and tell them that our goal is to put ourselves out of business by ending the cub petting industry, so "No, I'm not going to tell you where you can go pet a cub."
Where Do People Get the Idea That It's OK for Them to Pet Exotic Cats?
People have come here wanting to pet cubs since the 90's so I think it came from shows like Flipper, Daktari, Honey West, etc. where they saw people handling wild animals and wanted to be like them. Talk show hosts, like Johnny Carson, Conan, and Jay Leno would bring on wranglers like Jack Hanna and Jim Fowler, who would bring baby wild animals on T.V. to increase ratings. People like the "Lion Whisperer" were romanticized on television. When the Internet came along and everyone started carrying camera phones, the cub handling industry took off. Tiger pimps would set up in malls and charge $20 a person for people to use the cubs for their selfie shots. Big Cat Rescue pretty much killed that practice by educating the owners of more than 200 malls, about why that was so cruel and offensive to people who truly love animals, but it still happens at fairs because those are usually people who don't care about animal welfare.
There are still tiger, lion and liger mills in the U.S., Mexico, Africa, Thailand and other places that churn out a never ending supply of cute cubs who will be used, abused and discarded or warehoused. Most of them offer the cub petting behind locked gates and don't allow people to use their own photos or videos, for fear of the public reprisal if it gets out how badly the cubs are treated. For a fee they can buy the photos, taken and screened by the proprietors, to then show off online. That practice is what keeps the cruel cycle repeating. It's monkey see, monkey do. People see someone handling an exotic cat, or their cub, and they will pay to do it too. Then they come here, with their heads full of the images they have seen, and they just can't hear what they are being told. They don't want to hear it. All they can focus on is:
When Can I Pet a Cub?
That's why I believe there are only two reasons that people pay to play with cubs. Either they don't know any better, or they are so full of themselves that they can't hear anything except their own selfish desire to have what they want, no matter the cost to the animal.
USDA says they are going to educate people about why they shouldn't handle cubs, but that is not going to be a deterrent. The only way to end the abuse of captive big cats is to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act. "Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.” ― Martin Luther King
What Can YOU Do?
If you bothered to read this far, you clearly aren't one of those people who justifies breeding big cats for egotistical purposes. You can call your member of Congress, if you are in the U.S. and ask them to champion the Big Cat Public Safety Act ( http://bigcatact.com ) You can take action on a number of other exotic cat issues at CatLaws.com regardless of where you live.
I think one of the most important things you can do is to speak up when you see abuse. Whenever you see an article or a post, where someone has physical contact with a big cat or their cub, you have the power to educate right there in the moment. Maybe the selfish individual who posted such an image won't be educated, but you may actually reach some other viewer before they too become part of the problem.
Here are some good talking points: bigcatrescue.org/cubs/
Here is a printable flyer that covers the high points of this issue. Please feel free to use it to teach others. http://bigcatrescue.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/WhyIsCubPettingBad.pdf
If you have other suggestions, feel free to post them in the comments below, but please refrain from cursing.