Selfish Selfies

Tiger selfies and lion walking are the hottest trends on social media. Exotic pet trade is at an all time high. People love wild animals, but this way of loving them does just as much harm as poaching and killing. In a time where people are so far removed from the natural world, we crave it in many ways. But our desire to be near wildlife is now ignorant, possessive and destructive. The demand for wildlife as pets and interactive experiences with captive animals has led to an increase in animals held in captivity, and all the welfare issues associated with that. Someone’s unforgettable experience is a life of misery for a lion or tiger, and grim outlook for wild cats.

A 2012 paper written by world-leading big cat biologists Luke Hunter and Guy Balme (among others) examines lion interaction organizations in Africa, exposing their intentions as fraudulent and their claims as faulty. According to Hunter and Balme, cub petting and lion walking centres do nothing positive for wild lions, and only increase the number of cats in captivity, as lions have ever been successfully reintroduced to the wild. Organizations like ALERT masquerade as conservation centres or sanctuaries, marketing themselves as do-gooders and preying on well-meaning volunteers and travellers who want to help raise orphaned lion and tiger cubs.

If anyone stopped to think, they would realize that there are far too many young cubs available at these centres for them to be rescued from the wild or rejected from their mothers (which is not a common occurrence, in fact). They would soon realize that thousands of cubs are deliberately produced every year to fill the demand for cub petting, and what becomes of them? They cannot be released into the wild, not after spending their early days being hugged instead of raised by their mothers. A recent documentary, Blood Lions, exposes this scam as the early stages of canned lion hunting and black market trade. Once the cubs grow too big to be played with by tourists, they are sent to grim facilities where the females are farmed for cubs and the males grow into trophies for hunters.

The recent report produced by Australian charity Conservation and Environmental Education 4 Life on the dark underbelly of Thailand’s famed Tiger Temple exposed faulty records, disappearing tigers and potential black market wildlife trade. The fact that tigers are bred here under the popular guise of conservation, drugged, chained and paraded around for selfies should be enough to condemn them. This has no conservation value; all it does is perpetuate the practice of keeping tigers in cages, for entertainment value only. Many argue that, with all the threats facing wild cats, surely having them in captivity and allowing people to interact with them is the next best thing. But what is the point of essentially domesticating wild animals when you fail to protect the wild ones? Do they really inspire people to care about protecting wildlife? Or do they inspire them to keep visiting places that do nothing for wildlife? Most of these facilities are severely lacking in knowledge, expertise and morals, and welfare issues are rampant. But people continue to support them for the selfies.

Conservation is not about perpetuating captive animals. Very few species born in captivity can be successfully reintroduced into the wild. The argument that captive collections have conservation value is simply these organizations trying to justify their existence in a changing society. Their argument that they are conserving the genetic diversity for when the wild populations are gone is often nullified by their inbreeding practices to produce recessive colour morphs, such as white lions and tigers. A 2013 article in the Guardian exposed a number of UK zoos for poor breeding practices, misleading the public and allowing cub petting. Supporting cub petting and predator interaction organizations, despite their claims of rescue or conservation, is to support animal entertainment, canned hunting and black market trade. It supports the industry of captivity and the demand for pets. What it does not do is raise money for real conservation or research. It does not help the dwindling populations of wild cats in the world. It points to a future where the only wildlife we have are in cages, inbred, pacified and treated as pets. The number of captive animals increases each day, while their counterparts are disappearing.

SeaWorld has been forced to change with the times. The rest of the captive animal industry needs to follow suit, as they are no different. I look forward to a day when tiger selfies are seen as shameful instead of a mark of pride. As much as we love them, want to be near them and touch them, these animals should be celebrated where they belong – in the wild. And when they disappear from the wild, will we be glad we have thousands of inbred, partially domesticated giant pet cats for us to stroke?

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Stephanie Higgins
I am an aquatic and marine ecologist, and hold degrees in both photography and zoology. I grew up in Canada, and have worked on research projects in Madagascar, South Africa and Scotland. I have worked in zoos as well as on practical conservation projects.
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