When animals behave as (should be) expected.

On June 1, 2015 a young woman from the US was visiting South Africa, reportedly to raise money for anti-poaching efforts, when she visited the Lion Park. She was out on a tour of the park when, due to an unknown oversight, open windows allowed a lioness to enter the vehicle and attack both her and her tour guide. She died at the scene.

I feel sad for this young woman and for her family. The following is meant in no way to detract from the horror of this woman’s death.

Let’s consider that website for a moment. Now, I have never had the opportunity to travel to South Africa and so could not have possibly been to this park, but there are several things that immediately stand out as issues that lead to improper relationships between people and wildlife. The website GUARANTEES up close animal encounters. From the initial photos, this includes feeding giraffes and petting young lions. The park is open all day, everyday, allowing no time for animals to relax away from cars and commotion.  As of this writing, I am unable to access the full page, likely due to increased web traffic following the incident.

We are coming to a pivotal moment in history, a moment in which we fully realize the changes that we have set into motion- and which we must now steer moving forward. This will mean selecting which species will be preserved and which will be let go extinct. Big cats are among the most beloved species-their beauty and strength is both revered and feared in most all cultures. But in order for them to survive we need to teach a message of respect, of the worth of the animal for its own sake. This means protecting their right to be what they are. Petting a lion, or any other wild animal, sends a message of inappropriate interactions between humans and wildlife that negatively affects both participants.

We like to imagine our apex predators in their cuddly wallpaper quality adorableness and therefore we forget that they are indeed predators, animals with bodies and behaviors evolved to create efficient killers. To react surprised or offended when that animal acts on these traits is ignorant and unforgivable. Thankfully, most people take this account, recognizing that a wild animal is indeed, wild. I find this encouraging for the future of our relationship with other species.

Wildlife experiences are important for education and conservation. People are much more willing to help to protect something they have seen and can then relate to. However, these wildlife experiences need not be exploitative for the animals involved. When planning visits to these centers, please do a little homework before you go. Most information is available on the websites of reputable programs. When in doubt, call. Some important considerations: where do the animals come from? How is the park/sanctuary financed? Is it a registered non-profit? (Please, please only visit registered non-profits-the public tours that some give are done to facilitate the work they do re-homing retired or seized exotic animals.) What are the tours like? Do they involve interaction with any non-domestic species? How are the animals housed and transported?

These seem like a lot of questions to ask-but from my experience, those organizations that are doing excellent work on behalf of wildlife are more than happy to address all of these questions and more. By visiting these facilities and supporting them via donations/entrance fees/gift shop purchases, you are aiding in the work of conservation, education, and the comfortable living of animals that have struggled in deplorable conditions.

Information is powerful. And through education we can inform the public, including our peers, families and children about the value of a diverse ecosystem that is supported and respected.

If you have any experiences with good or bad wildlife parks, if you wouldn’t mind, please share for others, including myself.

Think sustainable, think globally, but take care of your own community, too.

Photo Credit: David Lloyd Wildlife Photography