24 November 2011

A dangerous game

It might be great fun to watch, but South Africa's 'Lion Whisperer' is doing no one any favours by letting these enormous cats treat him as one of their own.
Kevin Richardson

Kevin Richardson with a jaguar. Credit: Wikimedia

Last week I was watching a program about a South African conservationist called Kevin Richardson who runs a park 50 km out of Johannesburg for some of Africa’s most threatened wildlife including lions, cheetahs, leopards, panthers and spotted hyenas.

Nicknamed ‘the Lion Whisperer’, in one scene Richardson will stroll into an enclosure at the Kingdom of the White Lion park as a pair of newly introduced lionesses are met by the resident lions, and sit cross-legged – literally in the middle of them, – as they tussle, laughing affectionately as the pecking order is established around him.

In another scene, Richardson cradles an orphaned hyena pup and brings it into a pen with no less than four lions and a couple of hyenas, kneeling down amongst the curious circle to let them gently sniff at the chocolate-coloured fluff ball in his arms. A large, young lion comes up behind Richardson and wraps his giant paws around the back of his neck in an unbridled gesture of endearment.

As an animal lover, you can’t help but be wholly drawn in by the relationship Richardson has cultivated with these African animals, because who wouldn’t want to be hugged by a lion? Who wouldn’t want to be so highly ranked in the social order of their world that you, a much, much weaker creature, could bring a helpless, bite-sized morsel into a lion’s den with the implicit message that it’s important to you that it stays alive so it’s important to the rest of group that it stays alive?

And as much as it is great PR to see the ‘lighter side’ of species that are currently being poached to the point of extinction, I can’t help but feel the irresponsibility of it outweighs the benefits.

Each high in this program is met with a low, as Richardson contemplates the reality of the park closing due to a lack of funds. He halts a healthy lioness’ early pregnancy because a new cub would be too expensive to keep. And you can’t just send the homeless cats and hyenas to zoos, he says, because the demand just isn’t there. If something were to happen to Richardson – although he doesn’t contemplate the rather obvious ‘if I were to be mortally wounded’ scenario – the animals would have to be put down. An incredible waste of an entire park-load of perfectly healthy endangered animals. Not to mention the fact that Richardson has a newborn son of his own.

We just can’t ever assume these animals, no matter how affectionate or respectful they appear, won’t at any moment snap and let their instincts take over. One of the most incredible articles I’ve read in the last few years is an article in a 1996 issue of the New Yorker in which a journalist named Joanna Greenfield relives the moment her leg was gored by a hand-reared spotted hyena in a park in Kenya. And if anyone is going to have the words to describe the experience of having a ‘shark of the savanna’ tearing at your leg like the flesh off an elephant carcass, in excruciating, gut-wrenching detail, it’s a New Yorker journalist:

“If only I’d just squirted the hose into the cage, but instead I unlatched the cage door and bent over to put the dish down, talking to him. I don’t remember him sinking his teeth into my arm, though I heard a little grating noise as his teeth chewed into the bone.”

I’ll spare you the rest in case you’re eating, but it’s here if you want to read it for yourself. Oh and suffice it to say, Efa the hyena was put down.

Of course, it doesn’t matter how many people meet the fate of Joanna, (who to her credit certainly wasn’t in the same category as ‘whisperers’ such as the ‘Grizzly Man’), there will always be individuals who insist on living with wolves, tigers, lions and gorillas thinking, “it won’t happen to me,” because the temptation of being so close to a wild animal is just too great.

And it turns out this reckless optimism is pretty characteristic to our species. As photographer Joe Bunni told me in an interview about how he captured this incredible, award-winning image of a polar bear, “I can’t say I was afraid – it’s stupid, but we always think we are safe behind the lens.”

While ‘whisperers’ have the best intentions at heart, it’s a very dangerous game to be playing and one that puts both animal and person at an unnecessary risk.


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