Houseful of Cats: Woman Raises Lions, Leopard in Home

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10-month old white lioness Vati is on the loose and she's hungry, very hungry.

130 pounds of muscle and razor sharp teeth, she makes a beeline for the house of Annel Snyman and hops right up on the counter. Vati acts like an overgrown housecat which is basically what she is. She was raised by Snyman right here in this kitchen. Even as the lioness growls and bares her teeth, Snyman doesn't show a hint of hesitation or fear.

She says that Vati and her seven other lion siblings aren't pets, but more like her children that she has raised since birth. Her guest farm is a 20-minute drive down a dusty and bumpy road. From the gate, it's clear this is no ordinary home in rural South Africa.

But it's less the zoo in the house than the one outside that is Snyman and boyfriend Sean Weber’s focus. They have meerkats, servals, caracals, a leopard and seven adult lions.

These days, Vati has grown too big -- and too dangerous -- for the house and is now in this enclosure. There are 8 times more lions in captivity in South Africa than in the wild. Animal tourism is a huge business and farms like this one have sprung up all over the place.

Snyman and Weber argue that this isn’t just a business, they say they are helping wildlife conservation efforts through education. She opened the Loebies Guest Farm to the public 3 years ago, bringing in school groups and overnight guests to stay and enjoy their collection of predatory cats.

But many conservation experts dispute that small guest farms like this make any real difference. Instead, they say they're focused on making money off the animals which fuels the breeding of more for captivity.

“I think these organizations have very little impact on conservation because big cats kept like pets cannot be returned to the wild,” said Dr. Luke Hunter, president of Panthera. “You can never take them and train them possibly in any way so that they become effective at being a wild animal, they never will be. So really claiming that keeping a lion as a pet has something to do with conservation is really, really dubious.”

Then, there's the danger. Last weekend a longtime staffer at an Oregon wildcat sanctuary was mauled to death by one of the animals. Snyman says hers would never turn on her: “I raised them so I trust them and they trust me.”

Vati's boyfriend Timba is 18 months old. Timba was also raised in the house until he too got too big for the bed. He's been replaced by this little guy. Tschokwane is just 6 weeks old, the son of two of the bigger lions.

Undeterred by criticism or fear, Snyman has plans to grow the farm -- bringing in more lions as well as other predators. For now, her focus is caring for the cats she has and raising the next generation.