A Look at Cub Petting


Cub petting is a business which is carried out across the globe, including South Africa, Mexico and Florida. These can include bears, cheetahs, crocodiles and leopards, (however, for this report, we’ll be focusing on lions and tigers, as they are most commonly used). Paying customers will have the opportunity to hold, cuddle, feed and have their picture taken these animals. Well-meaning voluntourists can also go on package trips involving these animals (ranging in price from £800-1,000 approximately) where they will be able to interact with them while under the assumption that they are benefiting the conservation status of the species in the wild.

When giving in to the temptation of holding a cute and cuddly cub, people are often told that the exhibitors are from sanctuaries and that cubs enjoy the experience. It’s done to promote the species conservation in the wild and the cubs move onto good homes when they’re no longer cubs. These erase from the mind of the customers any feelings of doubt and / or guilt before handling the animals, however, in most cases, these statements are often false.

As the demand for this experience increases, more and more cubs are bred to meet it. Many captive lions and tigers are now in effect, being farmed, to produce enough cubs to keep up. The cubs are taken away from their mothers incredibly early which stimulates her to come into season again, ready to produce the next litter. While being passed around from stranger to stranger, the cubs are often drugged to keep them calm and are kept in conditions which impact negatively on their welfare when not on display. There is little to no market for adult lions and tigers other than hunting and many will meet their end in a ‘sport’ known as ‘canned hunting’. Others will be sold into the exotic pet trade or will be killed for their body parts, either to be sold as décor or souvenirs or to be used in traditional Asian medicines.

Cub Breeding

When agreeing to partake in a cub petting experience, people are often told by the handlers that the cubs are ‘rescued’ and are from ‘sanctuaries’ and that they must keep breeding and showing cubs in order to raise funds to run said ‘sanctuary’. This however, is false. True big cat rescues and sanctuaries do not breed lions or allow cubs to be exhibited around the country to ‘raise funds’. Cub petting experiences often operate facilities which comply with minimal standards of animal enclosure and welfare but fall far below the standards set by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries’ (GFAS) as humane. These ‘pseudo-sanctuaries’ pray on this misconception in order to continue to buy and sell wildlife and gain finances from the public.



Within these operations, cubs are taken from their mothers after only a few days and will separate them using seemingly cruel methods. In one example, workers will wait until the mother leaves the nesting area of her enclosure to feed or drink etc., and will then close the door between them. The mother can then do nothing but watch as they take her cubs. It has also been observed, in larger facilities that workers will drive towards a mother and her cubs in a large vehicle, playing loud horns or sirens to scare her off. They will then quickly retrieve the unattended cubs and drive off with them. In the wild, cubs will typically spend up to two years with the mother and after this premature separation, both the mother and cubs will spend days crying out for each other. The mother will then quickly go back into heat, ready to be bred from again, and the cubs will imprint on their human keepers.

Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS)


The GFAS was founded in 2007 and is located in Washington D.C and was created to help the public to distinguish true sanctuaries from the fake and to set a standard of best practice and animal welfare for allsanctuaries across the globe. The GFAS defines a sanctuary and these must meet their standards in order to be accredited and states that there can be no commercial trade, invasive or intrusive research, unescorted public visitation or contact and no removal of wild animals for exhibition, education or research.

“The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries mission is “Helping Sanctuaries Help Animals”. In carrying out this mission, GFAS:

  • Promotes and validates excellence in sanctuary management and humane and responsible care of animals through international accreditation, collaboration, mentoring;
  • Promotes the development of greater recognition and resources for sanctuaries;
  • Seeks to eliminate the causes of displaces animals.

In actual practice, GFAS carries out this mission through:

  • Providing worldwide standards,
  • Carrying out a global accreditation programme,
  • Convening,
  • Education,
  • Speaking up for sanctuaries,
  • Creating funding streams for responsible disbursement.”

Laws and Legislation

US Legislation

In the U.S, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that cubs under the age of 8 weeks (the age when they are considered to have an adequately developed immune system) are two young for public exhibition and those over the age of 12 weeks are too dangerous, which leaves only a 4 week gap where cubs can legally be handled by the public. This promotes rapid breeding of cubs and illegal overuse of animals (many operations have been found to be violating the 8-12 week policy), which puts the health and safety of humans and the cubs involved at risk for the sake of profit. It has been recorded, that at least 33 facilities in the US are advertising cub petting experiences regularly, which includes travelling mall exhibits and private menageries. To meet this advertised supply, these 33 facilities would have to produce a minimum of 200 cubs annually.

There is, however, very little enforcement of relevant legislation. During 2009, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) had only 97 animal care inspectors to cover over 4,300 facilities and the USDA has only 105 for almost 8,000 in 2011 (about one inspector for every 80 facilities). Facilities covered by these inspections include commercial breeders, zoos, auction houses, circuses, abattoirs and safaris. Enforcement is reduced even further as it is almost impossible to tell if a cub is within the legal age range within a single visit as there is great variance in body size among individuals. This lack of inspectors allows many violations to go unnoticed and unpunished and relying on them to ensure the quality of care of these animals is unrealistic.

UK Legislation

Animal Welfare Act 2006

The Animal Welfare Act contains general laws relating to the welfare of all animals on common land and makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to such animals. It also contains a Duty of Care which insists that anyone responsible for an animal must take reasonable steps to make sure their needs are met. These needs include:

  • The need for a suitable environment,
  • The need for a suitable diet,
  • The need to exhibit normal behaviour patterns,
  • The need to be housed with, or apart from, other animals (where applicable),
  • The need to be protected from pain, injury, suffering and disease.

Penalties for not meeting these needs as a person responsible for an animal’s welfare include prison time and / or a fine of up to £20,000 ($30,383) as well as a ban from owning animals in the future.

Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976

This piece of legislation requires people to acquire a license in order to keep dangerous wild animals (any animal that poses a potential risk to the public). The terms of this license insist that the applicant makes the local authority aware of which species they intend to keep and how many of each species, as well as the location of the premises on which the animals will be normally held. This act also states that the animal(s) in question should only be kept by the person named on the license, the animal(s) shall normally be kept on the premises included on the license and the animal(s) shall not be moved from the premises.

The Dangerous Wild Animals Act does not apply to zoos, circuses, pet shops or any place which is a designated establishment within the meaning of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. Penalties for breaking the terms of the license include seizure of the animal(s) which can then be held or destroyed without compensation, cancellation of the license and/or a fine of up to £5,000 ($7,595.75). All big cats and bears are included under this act.

The local authority will only grant a license if:

  • The applicant is deemed to be suitable to hold a license,
  • The animal(s) is kept in a suitable environment;
    • A secure enclosure,
    • Enclosure is of suitable construction, size, temperature, lighting, ventilation, drainage and cleanliness,
    • Provides adequate food, drinking water and bedding materials,
    • Is visited at suitable intervals,
    • Enclosure is large enough so that the animal(s) can take appropriate exercise,
  • A veterinary surgeon or practitioner authorized by the authority has inspected the premises and declared it suitable for the animal(s) to be living there.

License holders should:

  • Take appropriate steps for the protection of the animal(s) concerned in the event of a fire or other emergency,
  • Prevent and control the spread of infectious diseases.

These pieces of legislation make it very difficult for cub petting organizations to establish themselves in the UK. Anyone keeping lions, tigers and/or bears must acquire a dangerous wild animal’s license and holders are policed to ensure they are providing the best care for their animals. Early removal of cubs from their mothers and travel around the country to be held by members of the public would not be tolerated and animals will be quickly confiscated. What also makes it difficult for cub petting experiences is how often the animals would be on display to the public. If they are on show for more than seven days in a year, they are then seen as a zoological establishment and must acquire a zoo license in order to continue operating.

South Africa Legislation

South Africa have two pieces of legislation relating to the protection of animals and their welfare; Animals Protection Act 1962 and Performing Animals Protection Act 1935. There is also the Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1993 which governs the organisations and management of animal welfare organisations. The South African Veterinary Foundation suggests that these acts are not entirely effective due to lack of regulations and provision for the registration of animal workers.

Despite these acts, breeding big cats, cub petting and canned hunting are all entirely legal in South Africa. There are an estimated 160 lion breeding establishments in the country and 8,000 captive lions as opposed to only 4, 000 which are wild.

Cub Welfare

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the welfare of cubs used in cub petting experienced is often compromised in ways to extend their ‘petting time’ and to financially benefit the exhibitors.

Table 1: Typical development of tiger and lion cubs

Tiger Cub Lion Cub
·         Begins eating solid food at 13 weeks.

·         Completely weaned at 17 weeks.

·         Groom litter mates at 9 weeks.

·         Self-grooming at 12 weeks.

·         Social play at 5 weeks (increases with age).

·         Able to run at 25-30 days.

·         Can keep up with pride and weaning begins at 2-3 months.

·         Are weaned but still dependent on mother (up to month 16 or later) at 6-10 months.

·         Eruption of permanent teeth and begins to take part in hunts at 9-12 months.


During the 8-12 week legal window in America, cubs require long periods of sleep and begin to roam and wander in order to test their muscles and develop coordination. However, during cub petting experiences, they are constantly awakened and are yanked back when they wander off. When they are not on show, they are confined to cages for hours and are unable to meet these needs. Cubs often squirm and wriggle while they are being used in these exhibits, and to ‘calm’ them, exhibitors will do one of two things.

Blowing in the face of a cub is said to relax them, however, their wild mothers use this as a form of punishment and to discipline their cubs. The cubs freeze in hopes that the blowing stops, rather than because they are calm. Cub keepers will also hold a cub under its front legs and bounce it up and down, which they say ‘resets’ them and is how they are treated by their mothers. Both of these statements are false. There is no way an adult lion or tiger can physically hold a cub like this. This bouncing is unnatural and causes stress to the cubs, which can lead to illness. In fact, many cubs used in mall cub petting show have been observed suffering with severe diarrhea, which the keepers will keep wiping off the floor and from their sore behinds, causing the cubs to screech in pain. Some cubs will also have their teeth and claws removed as to reduce the risk of injuring members of the public.



Although the 8-12 week rule applies to much of the US, in Florida, it is legal to use a cub for cub petting displays only if it weighs less than 25lbs. Exhibitors will often exploit this piece of legislation, by underfeeding the cubs or feeding them pills to bring on diarrhea to keep them as light as possible for as long as possible. Drugs are also often fed to cubs as another tactic to keep them calm while they are mollycoddled by tourists. These breeches of welfare standard for the cubs can be so severe that in one example, an exhibitor had 23 cubs die in 2010.

Exhibitors will often tell members of the public that these cubs have been rescued from mothers who have rejected them or who have been killed by poachers. More often than not, these statements are again, false, however, if they do happen to be true, parading cubs around the country to be handled by strangers in this manner is not a sufficient substitute upbringing for them. Hand-reared cubs should be brought up in a rich environment and raising them in isolation (away from other animals) can result in severe behavioral inadequacies. Bush et al suggests that “where home environment rearing is not possible, the cub should be provided with a non-human companion” (such as a domestic dog). Kloss and Lang, 1976, also write that “many hand raised cubs develop hair loss at 6-8 weeks, possibly due to some diet deficiency”. It is almost common sense that being make to partake in cub petting experiences is not in the best interest of the cubs, but rather that of their keepers.



Zoonotic Diseases

In May, 2011, the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians (NASPHV) declared that the public should be stopped from making direct contact with tigers due to the risk of illness. Zoonotic diseases (those which can transfer between human and animal) from big cats include ringworm, salmonella and rabies. The NASPHV said that “ringworm in 23 persons and multiple animal species was traced to a microporum canis infection in a hand reared zoo tiger cub”. The Center for Disease Control states that three quarters of all emerging infectious threats arise from zoonotic diseases, which also accounts for five of the six diseases they regard as top threats to national security. Internal Medicine have also estimated that 50 million people globally have been infected with zoonotic diseases since 2000 and as many as 78,000 have died.


Zuri the white Bengal tiger, suffering with ringworm. www.noahs-ark.org

Benefits to Conservation

Exhibitors of cubs will often tell members of the public, that these cub petting experiences directly benefit conservation and that the cubs are released into the wild when they’re grown, which entices people to part with their money. This however, is also false. No lions or tigers have ever been released into the wild and conservationists have made it clear, that none ever will be. Partly, because they are too valuable to the keepers to part with (see section 6) and partly because the individuals are completely unsuited to a wild life and will most likely die within the first year. These people may also say that although their cubs will not be released, the money made from the exhibits will go towards conserving their wild counterparts. This is also a lie as not a single lion, tiger or conservation charity have benefited from any profit made by these experiences and no conservationist or charity could justify the immense suffering of some individuals to ‘save’ others.


Habituation is a process by which an animal becomes gradually used to situations they would ordinarily avoid. A habituated animal cannot be returned to the wild, especially large carnivores, as they can cause conflict with local people. If an animal has been brought up being petting and fed by humans, when in the wild, it will seek out humans for food as it knows no other way of sustaining itself. This can frighten people and cause them to kill or severely injure the animal, seeing it as a threat. If strongly habituated to humans, animals cannot survive on their own, unless rehabilited to do so. Cub petting strongly habituates cubs to humans and unless they are going to be moved to a rehabilitation center after their use in the cub petting industry has come to an end (which is unlikely because it would cost about as much as the profit it would have generated to do so), they will not be able to be released into the wild.




Rehabilitating an animal in order to make it suitable to a wild life takes time, money and resources. If habituated to humans, this connection needs to break. The animal needs to be taught what foods that it will find in its wild environment are safe and suitable to eat and how to get them. In regards to big cats and other large predators, hunting techniques can be taught using timers, pulley systems and eventually live prey (as seen in the bobcat rehabilitation video below), where the food is dispensed and pulled across the enclosure, enticing the animals to chase it, developing muscles and hunting capabilities. This happens hours after humans have left the enclosure, in order to weaken the animals association of humans with food.


During the 8-12 week window in which cubs can legally be used for these experiences throughout much of America, lion and tiger cubs are both drinking milk and would only just be beginning the weaning process. However, as mentioned before, many are taken from their mothers prematurely, both to be able to breed from the female and to be able to profit from the cubs sooner. Being removed from their mothers too soon means the cubs aren’t receiving antibodies from their milk which results in a weakened immune system. Cubs also do not learn the valuable lessons of how to socialize with others of their kind or what to eat and how to get it, as they do not have the time to play and interact with their littermates. They are not taught how to behave as the species they are or how to survive in their wild environment. While ‘on tour’ as part of a cub petting experience, cubs do not have the opportunity to partake in as much exercise as they need in order to promote proper muscle development. This leads to underweight individuals who would not be physically able to hunt for themselves if they even thought to.


Growing out of the Petting Industry

Once cubs reach 12 weeks of age (3 months), they are legally no longer allowed to be used in cub petting experiences in the USA and become too dangerous to be in direct contact with members of the public. At this age, the breeders are left with an animal that they are losing money on (as carnivores are exceedingly expensive to keep). The longer they hold on to it, the more money they lose, so they try to reclaim some funds by selling it to hunting establishments overseas, zoos to be used in walking experiences or into the black market, where it is killed and its parts used in traditional Asian medicines.

Lion / Tiger Walks

This is usually the first stop for a male lion or tiger cub once they grow out of cub petting (as females are often taken back to breeders to produce the next generation of cubs) and works much in the same way. The animals are usually put on a leash and are strolled around by a paying tourist, much like a pet dog. Establishments charge around US$150 (Approx. GB£100) and promote themselves as being part of ‘conservation, research, rehabilitation and release’. Lion walks are common in many African countries, while places such as the infamous Tiger Temple in Thailand, offer leashed walks with tigers.



Traditional Asian Medicines

When these lions begin to grow older, they are moved into overcrowded enclosures to grow. Those who grow only small manes are killed (as few hunters pay to shoot a small maned lion) and their parts are sold to buyers in Asia to be used in traditional Asian medicines. Many tigers are killed to supply this demand as soon as they grow out of ‘walking’ and few are kept for canned hunting.

20080311-kids_tigercons4_2 wwf.gif

Tigers have been used for over 1,000 years in traditional Asian medicines, due to the belief that they possess great strength and supernatural powers. Many parts of the tiger are used including the bones, eyes, whiskers, teeth, dung, penis, brain, bile, nose leather, fat and claws and it is believed they are cure a wide range of ailments such as ulcers, malaria, cancer, stomach ache and rheumatism. They are often sold as raw ingredients or in the form of tiger wines, powder, balms and pills which are very popular throughout the Asian community despite the lack of scientific evidence that they work.

Since 2008 however, Asian traders began to show an interest in lion products as the decline in tiger populations became acute and getting hold of their parts became exceedingly difficult. Lion bones are in more recent years, being used as an alternative to tiger bones and they can sell for around $75 (£49.50) per lb or $5,000 (£3,300) for a whole skeleton (the skull alone can fetch $1,100 (£726)). Some hunters who partake in canned hunting do not wish to take most or any of the body home with them, which allows the breeders to sell the remains for a healthy profit. Many of the bones exported from Africa however, are illegal and have been obtained by poachers which is estimated to account for half of the total exports of lion bones.

lion bones.jpg
Lion Bones

Canned Hunting

Canned hunting (in which lions are commonly used) refers to the hunting of captive animals and is completely legal in South Africa. Hunters pay to kill an animal trapped inside an enclosure with either a hand-gun, shotgun or crossbow and can cost £5,000-20,000 (US$7,572.60-30,290.40 / SAR109,059.42-436,237.68) per kill. This business is becoming larger and larger and in 2012, it generated approximately 807 million South African Rand (US$70 million / GB£46.2 million). Hunters are attracted to canned as opposed to wild hunting by the guarantee of success and the low price (£5,000 to shoot a captive lion in South Africa and £50,000 (US$75,697 / SAR1,090,594.20) to shoot a wild lion in Tanzania).


In 2008, the South African government declared that an animal has to have roamed free for two years before it could be hunted, which by definition, banned canned hunting (this restricted the profitability of breeders significantly). However, just three years later in 2011, lion breeders challenged this policy and South African courts and a high court judge ruled that such restrictions were ‘not rational’, and the policy was reversed. This resulted in the number of trophy hunted animals to soar. In 2001-06, 1,830 lion trophies were exported from South Africa and in 2006-11, this increased to 4,062, a 122% increase (the vast majority of which were captive bred).

Hunters and keepers of these establishments have defended their sport by proclaiming that it helps the conservation of wild lions and that ‘for every captive lion killed, a wild lion is saved’. This is based on the assumption that ‘every hunter who is prevented from shooting a tame lion will go out a shoot a wild one’. This claim have been proven false however, as wild populations of lions have declined by 80% in the last 20 years. A statistic which has proven that the rise of lion farms and canned hunting has not protected thm. In fact, some suggest that it is actually fueling this decline by putting a clear price tag on the head of every wild lion, and promoting illegal poaching.


Celebrity Influence

Celebrities hold a colossal level of influence over the public and serve as arbiters of morality and opinion. Many companies exploit this influence by featuring them in advertisements for their products. In the USA, one in four ads feature a celebrity, in Europe, celebrity endorsed adverts account for 16% of the total. In Asia, this figure increases to an astonishing 70%. According to the Global Consumer Trends Survey of 2013, 10% of consumers say celebrities are their main inspiration for purchasing a product.


Harry Styles

Twitter 26.2 million followers
Facebook 14,507,245 likes
Instagram 14.2 million followers
YouTube 18,021,235 subscribers

(to OneDirectionVEVO)

The sheer level of influence celebrities have over their fan base was made apparent earlier this year (2015) when One Direction star, Harry Styles, urged his fans to boycott SeaWorld. Following this, SeaWorld reported in August, an 84% drop in earnings during the second quarter of 2015 (they had only a 2% decrease during the same period only a year earlier in 2014). Other factors which may have contributed to this drop however, include the 2013 documentary, Blackfish and according to SeaWorld, “large amounts of rain in Texas and brand challenges in California.”

Many people with celebrity status however, do seemingly innocent things, more often than not, in full ignorance of the consequences of their actions both on their fans and the animals involved. Earlier this year, Beyoncé and husband, Jay Z posted a picture on social media of them bottle feeding a tiger cub with their daughter for their millions of followers to see.




Jay Z

Twitter 14.1 million followers 371K followers
Facebook 63,767,893 likes 20,908,896 likes
Instagram 52.5 million followers 107K followers
YouTube 8,501,701 subscribers (BeyonceVEVO) 248,406 subscribers (JayZVEVO)

Other celebrities to have posed with tigers, lions and their cubs include:


Khloe Kardashian

Twitter 17.3 million followers
Facebook 46,856 likes
Instagram 36.7 million followers
YouTube 5,451 subscribers


Mike Tyson

Twitter 4.97 million followers
Facebook 4,701,473 likes
Instagram 1.5 million followers
YouTube 80,951 subscribers



Twitter 35.7 million followers
Facebook 103,655,706 likes
Instagram 14.2 million followers
YouTube 7,682,604 subscribers (to ShakiraVEVO)

mgid uma image mtv.com 10947713.jpg


Twitter 53.1 million followers
Facebook 81,507,737 likes
Instagram 30.1 million followers
YouTube 17,986,824 subscribers (to RhiannaVEVO)

Celebrities should set a humane example, not an exploitative one, as their potential for influence is massive.”…”Tigers can kill, whether wild or captive, and every unwitting child who chooses to pose with a tiger as a result of seeing celebrities do so is at risk. Imagine if Beyoncé and Jay Z decided to expose tigers to the world by supporting their conservation in the wild instead.”

-Adam M, Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA

These people most likely are not aware of how partaking in these experiences compromises the welfare of the animals involved, as are a huge proportion of the general public. These celebrities are not doing this with the knowledge that the cubs will be moving into canned hunting establishments or sold on the black market to supply ingredients for traditional medicines, they are not at fault. However, the breeders of big cats and exhibitors of cubs know how to manipulate the public into parting with their cash and, just like any other industry, will use the status and influence of celebrities to endorse their ‘product’.

Many celebrities however, seem to be aware of their influence and use it to promote good animal welfare and to speak against cub petting and canned hunting. Just a few examples include:

  • Ian Somehalder created a foundation in his name (Ian Somehader Foundation) which educated the public about issued affecting animals, such as exotic pet ownership, pet overpopulation and the importance of pollinators. He also called out his ex and co-star, Nina Dobrev on Twitter after she posted pictures feeding tiger cubs.
  • Tippi Hedren owned a male lion named Neil, which lived in her house and slept on her daughter’s bed. She now, however, speaks out against owning big cats as pets and owns a big cat sanctuary. She is also working towards a ban against them being bred for pets.
  • Ricky Gervais frequently calls out trophy hunters on social media and calls for an end to trophy and canned hunting of big cats and other megafauna.


It is apparent that cub petting, canned hunting and lion/tiger walks benefits no-one but breeders and hunters. They are skilled at convincing members of the public that they benefit the conservation of wild animals, and that their cubs are orphans and have good homes to go to once their grown or are released into the wild, all of which are false statements. Apex predators are integral to the balance of ecosystems and play a huge role in natural selection. By eliminating weaker individuals from prey species herds, they reduce genetic problems and increase genetic fitness in future generations. Lions are currently classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN and tigers, ‘endangered’. These industries which claim to benefit the conservation of these species have yet to do so.

Authors Note:

This particular subject was very difficult to write. When writing these reports, I try to be as unbiased as possible and to present a balanced argument, however, in the month I spent researching this subject, I found absolutely no evidence to suggest that cub petting, canned hunting or lion and tiger walks benefit anyone but the breeders and keepers than run these industries. Personally, I think it would be in the best interest of the cubs and the wild populations of these species, for these practices to come to an end.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and I hope you found it enlightening and informative. You can help to bring cub petting and canned hunting to and end by refusing to partake in such experiences (no matter how tempting it may be) and to educate family and friends, maybe even share this report with them. If anyone has any further questions, feel free to get in touch with me.

-Cherry Maureen Iris Franklin, Bsc (Hons)




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