'Cub-Petting' Attractions Stress Out Baby Lions and Cause 'Grave Welfare Concerns,' Study Finds

Lion club neglect research
Lion club neglect research

© FOUR PAWS

Lions cubs are not photo props.

New research into the popular animal tourism attraction of "cub-petting" — where tourists pay to get photos of themselves handling big cat cubs — shows this trend's negative impact on the innocent animals involved. According to the new study, published in Animals and led by New York University and FOUR PAWS, cub-petting normalizes touching young lions, encourages captive breeding, and has scary implications for the African lion species. 

For the study, researchers analyzed public videos tourists posted to YouTube of their African lion cub petting encounters, taking note of the animals' behaviors, husbandry practices, and captive living conditions revealed in the clips.

Researchers reviewed over 260 videos for the study and formed a 49-video database that they felt was representative of typical tourist-lion interactions at cub-petting facilities. An estimated 61% of the cubs shown in the videos included in the database were under three months old; two videos had cubs as young as nine days old and one day old, with their eyes still shut. Researchers also observed that the cubs in the clips regularly exhibited stress behaviors, including avoidance and aggression.

The mother lion, who lion cubs are dependent on for weeks, was apparent in only 1 of 49 videos. According to a release from FOUR PAWS about the study, in the cub-petting industry, it is common for baby lions to be separated from their mothers and forced to interact with guests beyond their normal waking hours.

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"Our findings show that cub-petting facilities may cater to people with good intentions for the lions, but there are still grave welfare concerns," study co-author Dr. Becca Franks, an assistant professor of Environmental Studies and co-director of the new NYU Wild Animal Welfare Program, shared in a statement. "Lions who begin their lives in such facilities become part of a larger cycle of harm, including the canned hunting industry, the exotic pet trade, and the black market for wildlife parts. While these activities are well-known, the exploitation of cubs at tourist attractions is less well understood."

The study also found that the cub-petting industry has put wild African lions at risk by encouraging humans to see the vulnerable animals as playthings and creating a business dependent on the continued captivity of wild animals.

"As travel continues to rebound, tourists may seek out immersive animal experiences," study co-author Saryn Chorney, a recent graduate of the NYU Animal Studies program and journalist who writes about animals, human health, and cultural sustainability, shared. "The so-called 'Simba effect,' named for a popular character from The Lion King, is a term used to describe the tourist pastime of holding or petting lion cubs while taking selfies and videos to post on social media."

A young cub's involvement in these photo-ops is the "first stage in the commodification cycle of big cats," Chorney added.

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FOUR PAWS hopes this study inspires travelers to look deeper into the animal tourism options they are considering booking and how their experience might affect the animals involved. The organization wants those who are thinking of visiting a cub-petting attraction to consider where the cubs originated from, how they are treated and housed, and what happens to them after they become too large to interact safely with tourists before booking an experience.

"This study is particularly timely," co-author Claire LaFrance from FOUR PAWS International said. "We are seeing these kinds of interactive activities with wild animals prove dangerous for both humans and big cats. In the past few years, however, we have seen positive progress towards ending the cycle of cub abuse with the fall of Joe Exotic (The Tiger King) in the U.S."

Animal lovers can read the complete study, titled Poor Welfare Indicators and Husbandry Practices at Lion (Panthera Leo) "Cub-Petting" Facilities: Evidence from Public YouTube Videos, online.