Bred for the Bullet - Captive Lions

The “King of Beasts” once roamed over most parts of the world including Africa, North America and Eurasia. Today, however, they are restricted to the savanna, open expanses, and grassy plains of Africa, and to a small area of western India. There are about 20,000 lions in the wild today. A hundred years ago, that figure was around 200,000. Few animal species have suffered such a catastrophic decline in population.

The lion is the only truly social cat and lives in groups called prides. Prides are made up of a single male, although they can have groups of males, and up to 20 females and their offspring. The males defend the females and the territory from ‘other’ males, and competition is fierce. A male’s average tenure over a pride is around 2 to 3 years, whilst groups of males do better than a lone male.

South Africa is the only country to have three designations of lion status - Wild - Managed and Captive. Whilst wild populations continue to suffer catastrophic decline, to around 20,000 wild lions worldwide, the captive population has increased from a few hundred twenty years ago, to around 8000 today. The captive lions are held in around 200 breeding centres within the country.

These lions are ‘Bred for the bullet’ - They are sold to hunting companies who offer wealthy US and European hunters the guarantee of shooting a lion - albeit within an enclosure from which it cannot escape. These lions are not wild, they are farmed, often too closely bred - and are considered ‘tame’ to humans having been ‘petted’ as cubs. Lionesses have become as valuable to breeders as the male’s used for ‘Trophies’. The lionesses bones are now sold to Asia to be used a Traditional Asian medicine as a replacement for Tiger bones.

Captive bred lions suffer appallingly, they are removed from their mother’s within a day, to be hand-reared by humans. They are used in ‘petting’ parks, spurning millions of ‘selfies’ for social media. Once they have grown too big to ‘pet’, they take part in ‘lion walks’ with the public before they are sold to hunting companies to be shot as trophies or sold for their body parts.

The captive animals are deprived of their natural environment with little or any or stimuli, or enrichment. They live mundane lives in barren cages. The animals become frustrated, unenriched and bored, and many develop the so-called "zoochosis". 

‘Zoochosis’ was a term first used by Bill Travers, founder of the Born Free Foundation, to describe this obsessive, repetitive behaviour of zoo animals.

If you watch a captive animal, they will pace repeatedly, twist and roll its neck unnaturally, rock and sway back and forth, or even inflict self-mutilation. Hardly surprising as their lives consist of a dirty, dark enclosure as small as a bedroom, where many suffer from malnutrition, and never even feel grass under their paws!

Captive lions display stereotypical behaviours, such as Pacing and circling - Continuous walking back and forth or in a circle, following the same path. Signs of regular pacing include definite paths worn in the ground. Bar-biting -  The continual licking or biting of walls, bars or gates in an enclosure. Over-grooming and Self Mutilation - Self-inflicted physical harm, such as biting or chewing the tail or legs, or hitting a head against a wall, grooming to an excessive extent, pulling out hair, often leaving bald patches, irritated and broken skin. 

Other forms of ‘zoochosis’ are Apathy, where an animal is abnormally passive and does not react to stimuli, particularly when social animals are separated from companions; Abnormal mother-infant relationship, where mothers attack, abandon or kill their offspring, or where mothers wean offspring too soon or too late; Prolonged infantile behaviour, where animals do not mature properly or acquire aberrant social behaviours e.g. excessive crying or vocalisation, lack of social confidence, lack of secondary sexual characteristics; Abnormal aggressive behaviour, where aggression is uncontrolled, in terms of intensity and frequency, or directed to the wrong individuals or objects. This is often the result of overcrowding, threats by social dominants, or isolation from companions.

 Since 1993 when Zoocheck Charitable Trust (now Born Free Foundation), first released the Zoochosis report (link here;)  Zoos around the world have become far more aware of the challenges in keeping wild animals in captivity.

But this doesn’t apply to the ‘Captive Lions’ in South Africa. Lions have evolved over millennia and their physical, physiological and behavioural traits have developed in order to optimise their chances of survival in their natural environment. In captivity, Lions face a number of challenges for which evolution has not prepared them. The climate, diet and the size and characteristics of the enclosure are completely alien to them and how they have evolved to exist in the wild.  Captive bred lions have no control over their environment. They do not carry out evolved behaviours aimed at enhancing their welfare or survival prospects. Instead, they rely on humans to provide for many of their physical, social, biological and other needs. The captive environment leads to a deterioration in both physical and mental health such as the development of abnormal behaviour and disease.

 Save Me Trust wants to see an end to captive lion breeding and hunting in South Africa. Captive bred lions have no benefit to the conservation or protection of wild animals.

Although lion breeders and captive lion facilities claim that lionesses do not “look after the cubs well, the truth is, that cubs are often forcibly removed for financial gain for some extra ‘cuddles’. Not True! Lions are very good parents and are fiercely protective. Removal of cubs is very traumatic for both the lionesses and cubs.

The breeders that enable human interactions for profit are only fulfilling a recreation role; there is no education or conservation message. People visiting these ‘petting centres’ only learn that a wild animal can be controlled for human entertainment. Not only is this exploitation of the Lions for commercial gain, the practice can be harmful to the cubs themselves. They can only be fully vaccinated at the age of 12 weeks. Any human interaction prior to that exposes the cubs to the extremely high risk of catching diseases from domestic animals such as dogs and cats. These cubs are not ‘pets’ - they are working animals!

Uncontrolled and unscientific breeding and inbreeding has lead to various genetic malformations in captive lions. If these lions were released or escaped into the wild they would compromise the genetic integrity of the wild populations. There is also a huge risk of disease introduction to the wild populations. Lions are bred intensively to ensure a ready supply of lions for the petting, hunting and Asian medicine markets. They are exploited from birth until, there, premature death. 

Canned Hunting and the commercial breeding of lions to support it is an out of control monstrosity that threatens the declining wild populations and could see the extinction of this magnificent ‘big cat’ species in our lifetimes.

It’s time to end the trade in farmed lions - join us - and be a voice for wildlife