Panthera Africa | Big Cat Sanctuary
‘What’s wrong with petting tigers? I’ve done it and they don’t hurt you!’
My step son was adamant that there was nothing wrong with going to places in South Africa that allow people to hold baby tigers or other ‘wild’ cats, pet them and have their picture taken with them. There was nothing his father could say that would persuade him otherwise.
I shook my head and marvelled at the thought that so many people felt the same way. My step son lives in South Africa and he wasn’t even aware of the worldwide implications of such actions.
Just a day earlier my husband, his kids and I were out visiting wine farms (as my husband is fond of doing). My husband enjoyed some wine tasting while the kids played in the fields and gorged themselves on ice cream. On our way back home we noticed a sign advertising a Big Cat Sanctuary – Panthera Africa. We stopped to get some more information and even called them from the side of the road to find out when they were having their next tour. We were too late that day, much to the extreme dissatisfaction of the youngest who loves animals almost as much as I do, but we made reservations for the following day. That evening is when we tried having the discussion with my husband’s teenage son.
We tried to explain that the baby lions and tigers were being groomed for something much more morbid later in their life. He didn’t understand. He didn’t want to listen.
The next day we arrived at Panthera Africa at the end of a long dirt road. I have to admit, I didn’t think much of the place at first. It was rather barren and… ordinary. I’m not sure what I was expecting. It wasn’t flashy or over the top. There was no huge wall surrounding the place like I had expected. The registration office was a small wooden hut with a small assortment of swag. Nevertheless, I wanted to buy one of everything.
Finally we began the tour with our lovely guide and were introduced to each of the animals. We were told their heart-wrenching stories of being raised in breeding farms, malnutrition, neglect and worse. We were shown their ‘before’ photos posted outside their area and marvelled at how far they’ve come and how healthy they look now. A lot of the animals still bear their scars. None of them were pacing back and forth along the fence line and none of them seemed in any distress. They looked, for lack of a better word, happy. And content.
It was during the tour that our guide explained the term ‘canned hunting’. She described the process captured animals go through:
Cubs, born and raised in breeding farms, are torn away from their mothers so she is left to breed again. The cubs are hand raised and used for the tourism and hunting trade. They’re a marketing tool to attract tourists from all over the world in order to make them tame. The more tame they are the more easily they can be hunted later in life by paying hunters for either trophies or body parts. The price to shoot a tame lion is US$35,000. This accounts for half the lions killed in South Africa. This is all on the Panthera Africa website… and more. It’s absolutely horrid.
I think my step son finally ‘got it’.
As I walked through this sanctuary, watched these magnificent animals living peacefully in their enclosures and listened to the stories of how they were brought here, I began to see this facility as a place of wonder and grace. These cats were raised by humans with health issues as a result, and would never survive if they were released into the wild. At least here, they can live out their days in an environment as close to the wild as possible with all the care they require. Liz and Cat, the founders of Panthera Africa, have created a near-perfect balance.
At the end of the tour, I noticed a woman walking towards the enclosures. The reactions of the animals were immediate. They all ran towards her. Once they reached the fence they would roll on the ground and gaze at her with the affection – like my own cat does when I come home after a long day away. The woman was Cat and when she spoke to them they responded in kind. It was amazing to see.
I introduced myself and it was then that I realised the light surrounding this woman. I could tell she was truly dedicated to these animals and loved every one of them to her very core. She would fight for these animals and has, indeed, done that. She talked about her past, where she came from, how she had come to learn the fate of animals she thought she had been trying to ‘conserve’ and the truth behind some facilities that claim ‘conservation’. She is an open and outspoken advocate against canned hunting, breeding facilities and fights hard to get information out there.
I could go on… but I can already hear the collective sigh from the reader so will stop. But I do encourage everyone to go to the Panthera Africa website and check it out.
I also hope that anyone planning to visit any place that encourages interacting with animals, whether its petting lion cubs, riding elephants or even swimming with dolphins, PLEASE reconsider! There are better ways to treat wild animals.