With the release of Disney’s classic, the Lion King, our captive lion cubs are going to suffer even more than usual. Why I am saying this? Because of the ‘Simba’ syndrome. The film will ‘inspire’ masses of people to hold a real lion cub the way Simba was held by Rafiki, when he was presented to the kingdom.
Every year, hundreds of lion cubs in South Africa are condemned to a life of imprisonment in one of our 300+ captive wildlife facilities. They are ripped away from their mothers within days of birth to be hand-reared by humans, often involving paying international volunteers.
Their lifecycle is completely ruled by the optimisation of their economic value from cradle to grave. However, this story is about the distressing start of a lion cub’s life in captivity.
Many of these cubs have never known the sound, touch, warmth and love of their mother. They may have had some of their mother’s milk in the first few days of their life, but subsequently they are raised on a milk formula that ill-equips them for infections.
Taking cubs away from their mothers within hours to days of birth can severely compromise their immune system. Away from the public eye, many cubs catch viruses and bacterial infections and become seriously ill. Vets are expensive and plenty of breeders refuse to spend money on their animals’ health. The death toll of cubs in captivity is therefore high.
Those that survive the crucial first three months seek protection from us humans. We have become their surrogate mothers and in the process they lose their natural fear for people.
At often not more than a few weeks old, so young that they are still somewhat wobbly on their feet, these cubs are introduced to petting enclosures. Here, toddlers, kids, teenagers and adults are encouraged to pet, hold, kiss, play and cuddle these cubs for up to 8 hours a day. This habituates them further to people.