Can I Pet a Lion?

When I started working in the safari industry 20 years ago the question, ‘Can I pet a lion on safari?’ would have been met with peals of laughter and a polite answer of, ‘sure, if you’re bored of living’.

The last five years has seen that answer change to a controversial ‘yes’. Controversial because most of the well-meaning tourists who pay to pet big cats — some of whom believe they’re supporting a conservation effort — are unaware of a growing body of evidence that suggests that this practice is shrouded in lies, inhumane and downright detrimental to the lion species as a whole.

Where Is It Happening?

Big cat petting likely started in South Africa in the popular Cape and Kruger areas. It has since spilled over to other tourist meccas in neighboring Zambia and Zimbabwe in Livingstone and Victoria Falls. As with so many popular destinations, there’s no escaping the fact that wherever there are high volumes of tourists, there will be operators looking to make money, some more ethically than others.

What Is a Lion Interaction?

There are many variations but a typical formula for your average lion interaction involves paying $180 to spend a morning or afternoon to pet a lion cub or walk with a juvenile, and take photos of habituated lion at close quarters.

Walking with Lions, South Africa
This apparently innocuous pastime, hotly debated on sites like Tripadvisor, belies a murky background driven by profit, in which the lions are bred purely to capitalize on the appeal of the cute and playful cubs.

Emotional and Physical Impacts

What you don’t see is the lioness having her cubs removed at a very early, vulnerable age — some as young as three weeks old—to bring her back into estrus much more rapidly than she would in the wild. There she would give birth every second or third year and be preoccupied with raising her cubs in the interim.

Captive cubs, Campaign Against Canned Hunting

In captivity she is forced to produce two to three litters each year, ensuring that tourists always have a stock of adorable cubs to entertain them. This unnatural breeding cycle takes a toll on the emotional and physical welfare of both mother and cubs, the latter of which often have patches of fur missing — a common sign of stress.

The cubs’ time in any lion interaction program is terrifyingly short. Their ‘careers’ are over by the time they reach 15 to 18 months. After which, they’re considered too unpredictable and potentially dangerous to visitors.

This begs the question: once they’re no longer useful, what happens to these lions?

Cub being dragged, Campaign Against Canned Hunting

Debunking Conservation Claims

Operators of these projects will tell you that they’re helping to prop up dwindling lion populations and, as such, the programs have conservation value. Some even claim to be sanctuaries.

However, accredited sanctuaries don’t breed. With thousands of big cats already living in appalling conditions or being killed to supply the illegal trade in body parts, breeding is downright irresponsible.

Simply put, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS)—the body responsible for accrediting sanctuaries and setting standards of animal care and practices—states that any facility that breeds or subjects animals to stressful situations are not sanctuaries. Lion petting operators by contrast both breed and exhibit their animals.

Lions in Transit, Campaign Against Canned Hunting

Furthermore, when operators are challenged to provide evidence of funds channeled into lion conservation the silence is deafening. And just try asking how they provide ongoing care for lions that have outgrown their purpose. That’s when the façade of the lion petting experience starts to collapse.

Captive Bred Lions in the Wild

There’s a high chance you’ll be told that adult lions are released into the wild. Again, securing proof is nigh on impossible. It’s a question that’s been asked publicly by wildlife experts, investigative journalists, and passionate conservationist alike with no encouraging answers.

Panthera, a respected organization that works to ensure the future of wild cats through scientific leadership and global conservation, argues that to date not one lion has been released through these programs. (If you’re interested in supporting Pathera visit

Panthera’s President, Dr Luke Hunter, says:

“The simple fact is, ‘lion encounter’ programs do little to help conserve wild lions. We show that any sincere effort to re-establish lions simply has no reason to resort to captive animals; wild lions are already much better equipped to be wild. Releasing captive animals unnecessarily increases the costs, risks of failure and the danger — to both lions and humans.”

The Sad Reality

Giving these operators the benefit of the doubt for a moment, one thing that experts agree upon is that any captive bred lions that are ‘aged out’ of a lion encounter program and released into the wild are extremely unlikely to survive. Deprived of the opportunity to grow up in a natural social group they will be shunned, even killed by resident lions. They also have no idea how to hunt and fend for themselves.

Accustomed to human contact, they lack the natural fear of people that wild lions have, which can lead to catastrophic outcomes should they be released into areas with high human traffic. A recently aired 60 Minutes documentary, ‘The Lion Whisperer’, investigates the fate of cubs used for lion petting in greater detail.

Going one step further, in the event that these animals are indeed living out their days in the wild, the resources required to care for these helpless beasts in terms of suitable land space, management and staff would be astronomical. It seems highly doubtful that these lion encounter outfitters are so flush that they can donate what would be a huge percentage of their profits to caring for these adult lions.

In the harsh light of day, all the evidence suggests that if they’re no longer earning their keep, they aren’t being treated to a lengthy, pampered retirement. I for one don’t know of — and have never known of — anywhere you can go and see these hand-reared lions in their natural environment.

Canned Hunting Fodder

Adult lions are in demand by hunters the world over. The divisive practice of canned hunting is legal in South Africa where it has become a thriving business. Experts agree that it’s likely the captive-bred interaction lions are sold to hunting areas via a middle-man to become easy trophies.

‘Lion Special’ advert, Campaign Against Canned Hunting

Hunters visiting small private reserves will pay huge sums for the dubious privilege of shooting these ‘wild’ African lions. With no fear of man and no knowledge of the terrain the lions don’t stand a chance. Often hunters are shooting from a vehicle or safe blind (hide) with a powerful rifle or bow.

This isn’t sport and it defies belief that hunters think they’ve done something brave and special. While I’m no fan of big game hunting I can at least recognize the skill, knowledge, tracking aptitude—not to mention balls—required to hunt a wild lion or any other potentially dangerous animal on foot. Canned hunting requires none of these things.

Increasing Demand for Body Parts

For many years investigative journalists and campaigners have argued that this has been the fate of many captive-bred lions. Of course, none of the lion petting operators have admitted to it but there’s a dearth of evidence to the contrary, which speaks volumes. It’s a topic guaranteed to provoke passion and one that is shrouded in mistrust and skepticism on both sides.

It’s a regrettable fact that lions are even valuable in death thanks to the trade of their bones and teeth to Asia. A lion skeleton alone can fetch around US$10,000. Repugnantly, these endangered animals are sold to taxidermists, Chinese pharmacies, and American butchers to become burger patties. Reduced to just another commodity.

Important questions to ask if you’re thinking about taking part in any big cat interaction:

  • Where do the cats come from?
  • What certification does the program have and who’s running it?
  • What happens to adult lions?
  • Have any been released into the wild and if so where?
  • Is it really in the best interests of clients and lions?
  • Is it safe?
South Africa, Lion Cub in the Wild, Kwandwe

The thing is, if you go on safari with any reputable company you’ll almost certainly see the real deal living out their natural lives in the wild. If anything, it’s the distance between their lives and ours that makes these encounters such a privilege and thrill.

It’s my feeling that petting these magnificent animals in captivity is demeaning to lions and humans who are robbed of the chance to see them embody the full force of nature in their rightful place at the top of the food chain.

Want to Support Lions in the Wild?

Checkout these non-profits:

Suffice to say, with so many unanswered questions surrounding the issue of lion petting, we at Aardvark Safaris, which is committed to responsible tourism, politely declines to book any lion petting activities on behalf of clients. But ultimately, the decision to engage with a lion is a personal one.