Kevin Richardson, AKA ‘Lion Whisperer – some hard questions and frank replies
Kevin Richardson loves lions – to the extent that he has rescued and rehomed several. Along the way, he has built a substantial following and personal media brand that generates revenue and allows him to continue doing what he loves. His public shows of affection for his tame lions have earned the wrath of those who feel that he is setting a bad example in the war against the abusive cub petting industry. We asked Mr Richardson some tough questions, and he replied with passion and transparency. This Q&A contains no bias or hidden agenda – our intention is to interrogate the facts and provide you with a meaningful background to a controversial subject.
In past years, tourists have been grossly misled about captive lions by certain commercial captive wildlife facilities masquerading as sanctuaries or rehabilitation centres. Do you believe that the SATSA guidelines in this regard go far enough in helping tourists make ethical decisions?
KR: I don’t think guidelines are ever enough to influence human behaviour. This takes nothing away from the guidelines; it has to do with people’s choices and their desire to get, consume and behave as they please. The enquiring, ethical tourist has probably already drawn a line in the sand and does not need to be called to higher moral ground. When it comes to a person who is hellbent on touching captive animals? I think that individual will do so regardless of any guidelines. I feel that the influence of peers and influential voices are imperative to people’s choices. If someone you respect says, “Hey, that is not okay” then the person’s ego is affected – a significant motivator of behavioural change.
Tourist decisions aside, what about industry players? Take the example of the struggling tour guide, (especially considering the devastating effects of COVID-19 on tourism) whose client insists on a cub-petting experience. Will he follow guidelines or decide instead to put food on the table? Don’t get me wrong, having these guidelines is a valuable reference, but recently I heard someone say, “Idealism is a perfect science until it affects you.” I think sometimes those who venerate idealism are the same ones who are in the privileged position to do so. I see this with online activists that often have never set foot in Africa, they have a lot to say, but don’t understand what it’s like at the coalface.
Guidelines can also be deceiving as they lure people into thinking change has occurred. When the SATSA guidelines were released, a lot of people misunderstood them and believed that wildlife interactions were banned. This was damaging and caused confusion and still does. The guidelines refer to “changing trends in tourism” and link to a news article that says TripAdvisor won’t sell tickets for activities with wildlife interactions. A quick search will show that you can still buy a cub petting experience at the Lion and Safari Park on TripAdvisor, who rate the park 4.5/5.0. It sounds bleak, but I am wary of guidelines as they can be celebrated for achieving something that is not near being achieved. So, I guess I am saying I don’t think guidelines can go far enough in effecting change because they are guidelines and can be ignored without consequence.
Much of your conservation-based work appears to be through education, as described on your website. Could you provide salient examples of how the work that you do with your lions has benefitted lions in the wild?
KR: Education and awareness are difficult results to monitor and evaluate; however, there are many salient examples of how my work has benefitted lions in the wild. Most obvious would be the vast amount of money raised through the sales of images of the lions in my sanctuary that go on to support the work of organisations such as Tusk and WildAid to protect wild lions. Millions of Rands have been raised in the last few years through David Yarrow’s auctioning of these images, made possible only because of the relationship I have with these lions. * AG editorial note: We have confirmed with TUSK and David Yarrow that this statement is factually correct
Although we don’t publicise it much, my work supports scientific research that benefits wild lions and other predator cats in the wild. The ability to access the lions without anesthetising them has opened up exciting and enlightening scientific results. For example, the Department of Wildlife in Botswana put forward a motion to reduce buffer zones between the Khutse Game Reserve and human settlements to allow more space for rural farming. Conservation researchers were concerned, having already noticed the reduced recruitment rates of wild lions in this area due to increasing pressure from human encroachment. They objected to the motion explaining that proximity to humans was causing excessive energy expenditure resulting in wild lion population decline. Although the researchers had collected a lot of data on these wild lions, the government asked for proof and researchers needed a comparative model to prove their theory. We placed collars with accelerometers and GPS trackers, that had been developed by the University of Oxford’s WildCru team, on the lions in my sanctuary and were able to use this to create energetic models. Each day of the research, we were able to collect saliva swabs and faecal samples to further ascertain a model. This study was only possible due to my relationships with the lions. Now, there are models to help not just lions but other predator cats in the wild. The outcomes also provided information that can help NGOs to tackle carnivore coexistence issues on the ground.
Another incredible study we facilitated was the oxytocin trials we performed last year with researcher Jessica Burkhart that proved beneficial for wild lions. As habitats shrink and wildlife management becomes more demanding, there is an increased need for relocation of wildlife. This can be stressful and disrupt natural bonding behaviour for lions. Vets thus administer heavy tranquilisers in an attempt to stave off the aggression of translocated lions and help them bond and settle into new environments. Oxytocin is a naturally produced hormone that promotes bonding behaviour (such as head nuzzling in lions). Administering a natural hormone can decrease the side effects of drugs currently used (and also assist with healing and pain in captive lions). Jessica performed oxytocin trials on the sanctuary lions to assess the benefit of using oxytocin administered intra-nasally. The trials couldn’t be measured on lions that had been darted and were asleep, and it was easy and gentle for Jessica and me to administer the nasal spray on the sanctuary lions. Cats traditionally do not enjoy being sprayed in the face, but our lions enjoy the stimulation of me coming in to spray them with citronella and rub fly ointment on their ears. They cooperated and enjoyed this scientific trial. It was amazing to watch even our grumpiest lion rolling around, purring happily and enjoying the effects of “the love drug”. This research has significant implications for improving interventions with wild cats (and care for captive cats). This specific oxytocin project was referred to by lion expert Dr Craig Packer as “one of the first studies done in captive animals with real potential to have a direct impact on wild relatives.”
* AG editorial note: We have confirmed with Oxford’s WildCru team as well as Jessica Burkhart that this research has been conducted as stated. Neither study has been published yet.
Besides scientific research, my work as “the Lion Whisperer” has enabled me to launch a nonprofit organisation – the Kevin Richardson Foundation. Our foundation has helped protect the wild lions of Namibia through supporting the work of the Namibian Lion Trust (formerly known as AfriCat North). For two years we have helped fund their Lion Guardian Program which protects communities’ livestock from roaming wild lions and thus decreases human-wildlife conflict. We also contribute to their school’s education programs in these highly remote areas. Our foundation also supports the University of Pretoria’s Carnivore Working Group and have provided finishing funds for projects that need additional support to complete. We want to do much more in this space, but we are a fledgeling organisation and still in our infancy.
* AG editorial note: We have confirmation of proof of payment to both the Namibian Lion Trust and the University of Pretoria.
Less salient, but perhaps more pertinent, is how I have used my platforms to speak to issues facing both wild and captive lions. Drawing a concrete correlation between TV, films and new media and the effect on the subject (wild lions) is difficult however worth considering. Our show “Deadly Predator Challenge”, created with Smithsonian Network and featuring renowned scientists Dr Craig Packer and Dr Christine Drea, revealed the cognitive abilities of hyena and lions. This material is one example of how my work has helped changed worldwide perceptions of these creatures from “vicious beast” to understanding how emotional, smart and sentient they are. When people love something, they want to protect it. My shows have also done a lot to foster worldwide love for the hyena, an animal widely demonised through story narrative such as Disney’s “The Lion King”. Story, although also challenging to measure, is a powerful education tool. Just look at the work of the Born Free Foundation – without George Adamson and Elsa the lion’s story, this organisation wouldn’t exist.
I have been supporting Painted Dog Conservation Inc. for several years and have travelled to Australia 3 times and done 12 speaking events for them – which helped raise AUS$300,000. These funds have helped protect carnivores in Zambia, by funding the purchase of vehicles, radio collars and telemetry equipment, and building rehabilitation facilities.
*AG editorial note: This was confirmed in a statement from Painted Dog Conservation Inc.
There are studies (an example can be found here) that have been conducted that suggest that the actual and statistical educational value of captive wild animal centres is negligible. Do you disagree with these findings?
KR: I do disagree with these findings, as illustrated in my answer above. Furthermore, it’s problematic to use an isolated study to cast a net over all captive wildlife facilities. The above study is focused on zoos, specifically one zoo in Finland. I don’t particularly like seeing certain species in zoos, but regardless of one’s views on zoos, I am surprised when people are willing to put certain wildlife sanctuaries and rescue centres in the same category as retrograde zoos in Europe.
The above study deduced there are no positive behavioural outcomes for visitors observing animals in captivity. That may be the case in this instance. However, what should be said of respected sanctuaries such as Paul Hart’s Drakenstein Lion Park, Four Paws’ Lion’s Rock and Born Free’s Shamwari, Lizaene Cornwall and Catherine Nyquist’s Panthera Africa, which all have tours where educational information is given out? It is often these engagements that result in high-value donors or bequeathments that sustain the work they do. Are large donations from visitors not positive behavioural outcomes? Surely that is all the public can do to assist wildlife conservation efforts?
A day in our sanctuary is not what some may imagine – no one is wondering around randomly taking selfies with animals like in zoos. We have three guided tours per week, and these guests are driven in a game vehicle while provided with a large swathe of educational information about where the animals came from, how they are cared for, the captive lion breeding industry, canned lion hunting, and raising awareness about the plight of lions in the wild and what can be done to help them.
Small groups of volunteers are working in the sanctuary. It’s not glamourous work but is meaningful engagement, and we try to open their minds to the challenges of looking after captive predators and the complexities of conservation today. We have many return volunteers. Many of our volunteers have gone on to study nature conservation or veterinary science. The same can be said for some of our online supporters. We get thousands of messages from teachers, young students, artists and business owners who relay that, what they have learnt from our channel has changed their perspectives on lions. They are upset and shocked about canned hunting. Some write to us and say they are ashamed that many years ago they naively had a cub petting experience in South Africa, and they want to make up for it somehow. These individuals are doing presentations in schools, speaking to their peers and campaigning in their hometowns for lions. We have so much evidence of this it is difficult to aggregate.
One of your foundation’s listed aims is the purchase of land to increase that available for wild lions. Has any been purchased and, if so, where? What plans do you have for further land purchase?
KR: Yes. We are in the final stages of buying 1,200 hectares of wildlife habitat on the southeastern corner of the Dinokeng Big Five Game Reserve in Gauteng. The foundation will protect this land in perpetuity as part of a wider reserve that is supported by our government. In South Africa, protected areas are surrounded by private landowners who can use the land however they want. So, you have wildlife habitat surrounded by agricultural farms, hunting farms and even cub petting and breeding facilities. For this reason, it is essential to, wherever possible, buy back this habitat, open it up to the wider reserve and safeguard these expanded swathes of wildlife habitat. This is a fundamental approach that needs to be engaged in South Africa.
We are currently transforming a former commercial camp on this land into an education centre, which will be the base of our work with the rural communities surrounding these areas. These are the communities that resort to wildlife snares and poaching for survival. Recently a wild male lion was killed in a snare of this kind, in Dinokeng. The land has also been poorly managed and needs a lot of input to restore habitat health. We are committed to ensuring this happens, starting with consulting top scientists who know the area well. The work will continue, even when all the lions in the sanctuary pass on. We have plans to make the enclosures we have built available to serving the rehabilitation and release of injured or transitory wildlife. We will not be accepting any permanent ‘rescues’ as we appreciate the psychological and physical needs that big cats require in captive environments which is so much more than a few acres of land, food, water, shelter and a couple of enrichment programs. Furthermore, as funds become available, we have plans to further expand the reserve to the north, as well as look at protecting key tracts of land where the need arises. You need money to buy and adequately maintain land, so we will do the best we can.
As a public figure, can you give examples of how you have used your influence to campaign for more stringent legal control over captive wildlife facilities?
KR: First off, I am not an activist dedicating my energy to legal campaigns. It’s not who I am, and I have a sanctuary to run. A few years ago, before the foundation was launched, we attempted the legal route of addressing the lion bone quota issue. We employed the services of a prominent environmental lawyer, but the legal avenues suggested were limited and beyond our financial scope.
Some examples of using my influence are the many interviews I’ve done. One of notable interest was the interview with CBS 60 Minutes when I revealed my thoughts about the captive lion breeding industry and canned hunting. During this program, it was exposed that the Lion Park (it is no secret that I started my career there) had sold lions to canned hunting facilities for several years. This was one of the highest watched segments in 60 Minutes’ history and viewed by an audience of 20 million Americans. This is a significant demographic to educate on the truth around captive wildlife facilities and canned lion hunting.
After realising quickly that one can only play to their strengths in this challenging campaign, I decided to take advantage of mine – which is reach. I can’t be the messiah of lions, but I have always been willing to put forward the work of activists and partner with them in helping them get reach. I would like it on record that I want nothing more than to use whatever influence I have to support the efforts of those who are committed to this campaign. Last year we offered completion funds to some documentary filmmakers who were producing an exposé on the lion bone industry, following on from the documentary “Blood Lions”. We excitedly offered distribution support through one of our foundation’s contacts in the television landscape. We also offered to show the film on my channels, reaching over 2 million people. Although the producers were excited at the prospect, one or several of their other funders refused to work with us. So, my influence and reach are being actively turned down by some ‘conservationists.’ These are often the same people who claim to prioritise garnering worldwide pressure to campaign for stringent legal reforms to improve the lives of captive lions. Myself and the Foundation are largely excluded from coordinated efforts (such as petitions and statements) of lion charities, even though we have considerable reach and influence. I am not angry; I am sad. Last year we offered funds to a charity that trains impoverished, rural children in wildlife photography and career choices. We also indicated our interest in paying for the tertiary education of one of their top students. The charity turned us down because one or more of their board members refused to partner with me. I can only assume this was due to my relationships with the lions. This… is really sad.
We have attended the Global March for Lions and attended the 2018 Parliamentary Colloquium on the Captive Wildlife Industry. I try to stay abreast and support these campaigns, but it has been years now that the government is equipped with the knowledge and consequences of the country’s lack of regulation, and they have done nothing. Like most people who campaign for the welfare of lions, I sometimes battle to envision an effective way to bring legal reform when the system is primarily designed in a way that the emotional and physical wellbeing of the animal are neglected. We are dealing with a government that has a deep and systemic divergence in how wildlife is inherently perceived in value, in a country whose priorities are 100% economically driven.
I became involved with the film “Mia and the White Lion” because I couldn’t see any tangible effects coming from the legal campaign. What I perceived is that I could help in agitating a more substantial international public into understanding what is going on in South Africa, and reach audiences that had otherwise never been reached before. This film, which delivers the sordid reality of the canned hunting industry through the palatable platform of a family fiction film (based on actual events), was viewed by over 4 million people in theatres alone, and many more millions via VOD platforms such as iTunes, Google, Netflix and Amazon. The response to the film was, and still is, overwhelming. The response is also sobering when you realise the world doesn’t know what canned hunting even is. The film is fostering worldwide condemnation of the industry as a whole. Shock-documentaries do not have this reach, especially to new audiences, and I consider this film as critical to expanding the campaign to a broader audience and the next generation. Talking about the next generation, the story of “Mia and the White Lion” is now being turned into a 50 episode animated children’s series for ages 4-8. To teach such a formative age group about lions and the horrible world they exist in, means the real narrative of lions (not the Disney version) is getting fixed in the minds of the next generation. Perhaps this will help bring legal reform?
What is your response to those that claim that by interacting with your animals, you are encouraging members of the public ignorant of the context to participate in such interactions and thereby are stimulating the demand for such facilities?
KR: The rationale behind statements like this amazes me in its simplicity and banality. Does watching Formula 1 result in people going out and driving at 200mph? Does watching presenters on National Geographic Wild, capture and play with dangerous snakes, stimulate the demand for snakes being kept as pets? Maybe for the one or two lunatics out there, but most people have a functioning brain. The demand for petting small, cute animals has always existed. Lion Park began in South Africa in 1967; I was born in 1974. If I had never met two lions back in 1998, or if I had terminated my relationships with the (fully grown) lions in my care, would the demand have slowed down? I don’t think so. There is something inherent in human nature that wants to touch, cuddle and nurture something small and cute – it’s built into our biology. The problem with cuddling lion cubs is not the act itself; it’s that it results in something more horrific for the animals when they grow bigger. The demand always existed and will continue to exist until outlawed.
My other issue with the above statement is that some activists and organisations like to tar everyone with the same brush, casting a net over all interactions, as if we live in a black and white world. I find the above premise deficient. It also does not address the fact that historically, and indeed today, the support and love of wildlife species have been advanced by the up-close relationships some humans have with animals. I grew up inspired by the works of David Attenborough, George Adamson and Steve Irwin, did this result in me wanting to interact with wild animals? No, my relationships and interactions began by a chance opportunity given to me as a young and naïve man. I do, however, credit them with the respect, passion and love I have always brought to my work.
The summation that seeing images of interactions stimulates a specific commercial demand is grossly oversimplified. Until Jane Goodall lived and interacted with chimpanzees, (as shown in the documentary ‘Jane’ by National Geographic), there was little to go by in capturing the world’s affection for these animals. We don’t attribute the huge pet chimpanzee or monkey problem to the many images of her or her colleagues interacting closely with primates – it’s way too simplistic a correlation. What of Dianne Fossey, Liz Bonnin, Gordon Buchanan, Steve Backshall, Laurie Marker, Tony Fitzjohn, Linda Tucker and Gareth Patterson? What of all the new celebrity vets emerging so popular on social media and television? Does seeing Ocean Ramsay interact with a White shark make her followers, or people coming across those images, want to go shark cage diving? Many rehabilitation facilities show imagery of staff, visitors and celebrities petting giraffe, cheetah, wolves, orphaned rhino and elephant. Do these images equate to people rushing off to ride elephants in Thailand or petting cheetah at a roadside zoo? I don’t think so. If we are going to make this correlation than we need to hold everyone to the same scrutiny, as any image taken out of context can be misunderstood. In the last two decades, the widespread emergence of natural history and wildlife TV shows as a competitive entertainment genre has turned many people into wildlife advocates. Would this have been possible without the interactions and relationships the presenters have with the wildlife?
I think these images and stories have helped millions of people to feel intimately connected to an increasingly estranged natural world. Some do it more ethically than others, but without bringing the animals into the home and heart of an audience, the disconnect between humans and the natural world will continue to deepen.
Let’s not forget that 99.9% of people across the world will never step foot in a game reserve. Yet, through our work, we have millions of people that feel personally responsible for the wellbeing of a species that is currently in peril, that they will likely never see in real life in the wild. I’m concerned that the idealism of those that insist that “hands-off” conservation is the only “right” way, are those that a) are in the privileged position to visit national parks and go on expensive safaris, and b) are not in the ominous financial position of having to feed, care and maintain a home for these animals for a lifetime. As John Galsworthy aptly said, “Idealism increases in direct proportion to one’s distance from the problem”.
It would appear that none of your predators can be released into the wild, so would you explain how your continued interaction with them is to their benefit? Is it purely to ensure that they can be used for commercial purposes (such as the Tag Heuer advert) with minimal risks, thereby essentially paying for their own keep?
KR: We have released some hyena into the wild, but as many know, this is not viable with lions and leopard that were born and raised in captivity. There are fundamental reasons that I continue relationships with the lions. The first is that no matter how well cared for a captive animal is, I assure you, their lives are pretty dismal. The lions I care for, just like other rescued lions, are essentially prisoners for life, confined to a small space for crimes they didn’t commit. They may be thrown a ball, a toy or a blood popsicle here and there as “enrichment”, but it’s no natural life no matter how you spin it. I’d like to pose a question: If you were a bird in a cage, would you rather be left alone in your cage or would you rather have a relationship with your keeper and be released now and then, to fly and feel like a bird? The lions benefit from the relationship we have. When they hear my car coming, they will get up and run to the fence excited, for the stimulation our relationships bring about. Siam, one of the lions, will perk up in the midday heat (when a lion usually sleeps) and come to greet me. This is unusual behaviour for a lion. He wants his small moment in the day when he gets rubbed with citronella oil and brushed. When I see the happiness on his face, there is no way on earth I would deny him this small pleasure amongst the monotony of his existence. Last week I was sitting with another lion, and as I always inspect them, I found a thorn in his foot that was going septic. If unnoticed, this would have required the intervention of a vet and the trauma of being anesthetised. My lions get a softer touch when it comes to veterinary care – this is of immense benefit to them, and even when the vet does come, their stress levels are much less due to our relationships.
I haven’t spoken of this too much, but it may help readers understand the relationship that exists between these lions and myself? Often when I go away on holiday, some of the more sensitive animals in the sanctuary get depressed. We have a long history of animals getting ill when I am travelling abroad for long periods. This sometimes makes travelling difficult for me, as I can never fully be present where I am. Although difficult to talk about, one of my dearest lionesses, Amy, died recently of leukaemia. She took a rapid turn for the worse over Christmas while I was away. When I returned, the vet and staff said she was waiting for me. I went into her enclosure and sat with her. She lifted herself, something she hadn’t done since I had left, and uttered a ‘wa-ow’, a friendly, gentle, guttural sound that a lion makes when being affectionate. She died shortly after that. I don’t feel the need to convince people that there is a deep understanding between these animals and me; I know it to be true, and that is all. To ask me to stop interacting with them is like asking a person to please refrain from ever hugging their child again.
Regarding commercial opportunities such as the Tag-Heuer shoot, yes, these opportunities help create a better life for the animals, but I wouldn’t frame it as a transactional agreement as laid out in the question. My motivation is my animals and looking after them in a way that can be more sustainable than the usual sanctuary approach, which relies entirely on donations and footfall through the door. My relationship with them has paved the way in creating unique opportunities, such as Wild Aid shooting a PSA for lion awareness and conservation, just as it does for Tag-Heuer that pays for some vet bills and the excellent care that these animals receive. To the lion, it’s the exact same experience. The lion doesn’t care if the shoot is for an NGO or a brand – the lion is concerned only that it is enjoying the stimulation and the treats that come with a shoot.
I facilitate many of these nonprofit shoots in large part, with no fee attached, and the money goes to other NGO organisations. When I finally took ownership of these animals from the clutches of their previous owner, I had the freedom to be very discerning about which projects I accepted, and each one is carefully considered. These shoots, Tag-Heuer included, have helped create a risk-averse environment for me to fulfil my commitment to take care of these creatures for the remainder of their lives. I think with the release of the “Tiger King” docu-series, the world is waking up to the reality that it’s a long, long, expensive commitment to house and care for a captive wild animal properly. You need to be smart and play the long game. My animals are getting old; I have to be prepared for rainy days. With the outbreak of the Coronavirus my phone is going off the hook with other facilities asking us to take animals in because they cannot afford to keep them. I can keep my head above water during such times because of these shoots, so I am very grateful for that and to the lions that help contribute to the upkeep of their kind.
Your website mentions the support of the patronage of Her Serene Highness Princess Charlene of Monaco. What does this patronage cover and are there any conditions that you are required to follow to receive this support? If so, what do these conditions include?
KR: My relationship with HSH Princess Charlene arose from her interest in spotted hyena. She wanted to help elevate the profile of hyena, and she visited me for advice. After spending time at the sanctuary, she became enlightened to the extent of how captive lions are being treated in this country. She has always wanted to help, and so when we were launching the foundation, I offered her a position of Patron which she accepted. The princess lends weight to our organisation and being South African, it was important to her to represent an animal so iconic to the country in her position of influence. There aren’t specific conditions to her patronage, except that we provide her with our annual report and keep her abreast of what is happening legislatively. We are aiming to host a fundraiser in Monaco, but with COVID-19 and its detrimental impacts throughout the world we’ve had to push this out. As an organisation that is not yet two years old, we need to strategically put resources into things that yield direct results, especially in the trying times we are all faced with.
Did you buy lion cubs from a breeding facility for Mia and the Lion? If not, where did the cubs for the movie come from? If so, would this not qualify as supporting the industry you purport to condemn?
KR: We would prefer to look at the lion cubs from the film “Mia and the White Lion” as being saved from the abhorrent canned hunting industry. The fact that money exchanged hands has never been denied. I think my critics enjoy the romantic notion that I did it secretly, cloak-and-dagger style. Acquiring the cubs was a calculated and intentional decision for a few reasons. Firstly, when we asked ourselves “Where can we ethically purchase lion cubs?” the resounding answer was… “Well, nowhere.” I have a strict no breeding policy at the sanctuary and was certainly not going to take a lioness off contraception to breed a few cubs that would readily be available at any one of the 300 breeding facilities in South Africa.
Secondly, the film for me was an opportunity to take a disturbing and horrific story and relay it to audiences across the world in a palatable way – through a family film. I have worked in conservation and documentary film for over two decades. I’ve come to understand that the audience that seeks out expose’ type films is generally the audience that is already quite informed. It certainly excludes children, as we want to protect them from seeing these horrific images of lions being slaughtered, just as we protect them from seeing what transpires at feedlots, chicken farms and piggeries. I believed the film to be an effective and modern way to spread this story globally. The film required lions, and I knew I could help make the film happen. My question to the reader is, would not acquiring the cubs, and not making the movie, have served the cause of lions in any way? I question the power of boycotting in this circumstance. If I had not acquired cubs and not made the movie, nothing would’ve transpired. By procuring the cubs and making the movie, a doorway to millions of people has been opened, and awareness about canned lion hunting become known where it was previously unknown. For these few lucky lions that escaped the bullet and now live in my sanctuary, this choice served them well too.
Does it qualify as supporting the industry I condemn? The answer to that is subjective, in my opinion. I paid considerable sums to get ownership of all the lions in my care – as they certainly weren’t going to be handed over as a gift – too much an amount for a group of ageing and in-bred lions to be honest. You can call it rescuing or purchasing… in that situation I felt I was paying a ransom for animals I had grown to know and love. It amazes me that people get hung up on this. To do an exposé on human trafficking, a filmmaker may need to solicit a sex worker for an interview, supporting an industry they are against. Many organisations are founded on the purchasing of lions, like Panthera Africa, for example, as told in the book “Cuddle Me, Kill Me” by Richard Peirce. No one hides that fact, and everyone agrees that Obi and Oliver were rescued, even if they were purchased. I think the idea that paying money for something that serves a higher purpose is the same as “supporting” an industry they disagree with is a bit far-reaching and lacking in creativity and foresight.
How many predators do you have at the sanctuary, and would you be willing to explain the background of all of them?
KR: I have 24 lions left in the sanctuary, and that number is decreasing year on year as they age and die. Most of the lions are well over 12 years old, many 15, 16 and 17. There are also four leopards, 11 elderly spotted hyena and two striped hyenas. The background of these animals is that I came to know them while working at Lion Park as a young man in the late 90’s. When I severed all ties with The Lion Park, I took these animals with me, and it took me several years to get legal ownership of them. This background excludes the six lions acquired for the film “Mia and the White Lion”, which has been explained above, as well as George and Yame – two lions rescued from Spain by The Campaign Against Canned Lion Hunting (CACH) who asked if I would take them.
When the last lion passes, these enclosures will either come down and become part of the habitat around it or be used as a temporary rehabilitation facility for wildlife that is injured and will be released into the wild. This era of my life will be over, and I will engage with the new world of conservation that emerges and the new challenges that it brings.
You referred to the Tiger King series currently viewing on Netflix. What are your thoughts about the series?
KR: Having now watched it, I can say I am honestly stupefied at both the way the animals are being kept and the people who appear in this show. Although I have always been aware of the horrific numbers of big cats kept in backyard conditions, poorly run zoos and rescue facilities in the U.S.A, it was horrifying to get an inside look at the sheer scale of what is going on, not to mention the motives behind the people ‘caring’ for these animals. What was particularly disturbing was the millions of dollars (some donated), squandered on frivolous lawsuits and personal rivalries. It shows that even big cat rescue centres that are lauded as ethical have lost touch with their priorities. It seems, in this case, the fish is rotting from both ends. Although the reality is worse than I ever imagined, it is necessary and positive that the whole world is now aware of how ludicrous the situation is and how much harm is being caused by lack of regulation. Hopefully, this will give rise to some legislation change that makes the ownership and breeding of wild animals more restrictive. For years I have been explaining to people the considerable responsibility and complexity involved in adequately caring for predators in captivity, and that it is a lifetime commitment that requires shed loads of money. I hope the series is a warning to those individuals who can’t see past the few months of when a cub feels like a cute pet, and goes out and buys a predator cat on a whim. When it comes to animal welfare, it’s heartbreaking to see the conditions these animals have to endure, but sadly there are just as many big cat rescue facilities (initially with good intentions to ‘save’) that are as bad, if not worse, than some of the zoos or circuses the animals have been “rescued” from. What worries me is that these facilities, dependent on the public to keep running, are existing hand-to-mouth, with no contingency plan and what happens now to the animals in a scenario such as the COVID-19 outbreak? As I write this, these facilities are closed with zero income during the lockdown, what of the animals?
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