Ruffling Feathers With Facts: What Big Cats Really Need From US Activists

Breaking from the stream a little but still questioning the bigger picture of “hands-on” or “hands-off,” Mary Reedson gives a candid view about a subject that divides.

Recently, feathers have been ruffled among a number of conservationists. There have also been cases of butt-hurt. The results of butt-hurt tend to be vindictive articles designed to A) Make the butt-hurt folks look like battered heroes and B) Make the those who did the butt-hurting look like they’re the bad guys.

What was the cause of all this drama? Facts. Like the fact that handling captive big cats does far more damage to the preservation of big cats in general than it does to aid it. In the conservation world (specifically big cat conservation) some of us think that handling captive big cats is not a good example to set for the ever-watching public, and that it’s detrimental to conservation. And then some people think that handling captive big cats is not a good example to set for the ever-watching public, but it’s still okay to do it as long as you’re an “expert”.

Sound hypocritical? That’s because it is. Which is why more and more people are starting to say “Hey, if high profile conservationists like the Lion Whisperer say that people shouldn’t handle captive wild animals, then why do they keep handling their own lions and other captive wild animals? The answer? Because they can.

In two separate incidences recently, devoted fans and employees of Kevin Richardson made embarrassing scenes of themselves during discussions among conservationists wherein questions of Kevin’s ethics were raised. Some of these questions have to do with one of the Lion Whisperer’s current “pet” projects (bad pun, totally intended) wherein he’s spending three years–that’s 1095 days and nights to consider what you’re doing–raising a pride of lions with a group of human children for the production of a movie. Don’t believe what you’re reading? Check it out for yourself. That’s right, Kevin Richardson is making a movie where he’s training children to hand raise lions, which is the very thing he says he’s raising awareness against. But, it’s okay, because Kevin is doing it.

This was the crux of the disagreements that happened recently. Problem is, the fact that teaching people to interact with captive wild animals is a bad idea is not a fact that’s applicable to Kevin Richardson, according to his die-hard followers, many of whom are conservationists. When Richardson groupies got ousted by the simplistic, yet insurmountable truth that it’s hypocritical to tell folks not to do the very thing you’re doing while telling them not to do it, things went south. First came a sympathy post on Kevin Richardon’s Facebook page, lamenting how “we are accused by people who clearly have no idea what our mission is, of encouraging people to get big cats as pets.” Full disclosure from firsthand witnesses, during the ass-handing which provoked this sympathy post, no one ever even insinuated that Kevin promoted big cats as pets. Any comment on this post which did not read as “Whoever hurt you is an idiot, we love you!” was deleted. I stopped counting at a dozen comments which either pointed out that Kevin *does* actually set a bad example by playing with his cats, or which pointed out other fallacies with Kevin’s public behavior, and capitalization of his own interactions with his cats. A number of people were even blocked by the page so that they couldn’t comment again.

Then a steadfast conservationist asked candidly on her Facebook wall whether Kevin inadvertently promotes interaction with exotic animals through his empire of handling his own animals. Over the course of 107 comments the positions divided evenly between “No he does not” and “Yes, he blatantly does”. Those in the “No, he does not” camp quickly found themselves lacking in proof of their position and almost immediately degenerated into “I’m not arguing, you’re entitled to your opinion.”

Yes, everyone gets an opinion. However, when people like Eduardo Serio are saying publicly that they started their own foundation, and handle their animals explicitly because they wanted to be like Kevin, our “opinions” become true facts.

Then an article addressing “What Big Cats Need From US Activists” was published, which promised an “introduction to wicked, complex problems” associated with big cat conservation. It was reposted almost instantly to Kevin Richard’s Facebook where it has, not surprisingly, received accolades. Of course, any comments of differing opinion are carefully weeded out, not unlike the way the Black Jaguar White Tiger sites are carefully scrubbed of any questioning or condemning voices. Naturally, those who admire Kevin will welcome an article that only reaffirms their pre-established beliefs. Absurdly, the memo in the post makes a point of how anyone who “sits in judgements of efforts you fail to understand” might change their mind after reading the article. As if we simply aren’t smart enough to see how special Kevin is, and thus how above common standards of behavior he is. The much celebrated article, I must say, is one of the finest examples of white male privilege and chauvinism that I’ve ever laid eyes on.

The article was written by a white American man. One who had the privilege of growing up in an affluent 88% white neighborhood that enjoys an average income of $105,500 a household, with only about 0.9% of residents falling beneath the poverty line. This author was blessed enough to attend not only college, but also graduate school, where he specialized in cognitive ecology (remember this, I’ll come back to it later) The author also happens to be the friend of someone who manages Kevin Richardson’s page, and who was involved in the spats that took place in regard to Kevin Richardson. But I digress, let’s break down this article.

We open with a nice paragraph explaining that there are actually no big cats in America, because “big cats” are only cats within the genus of Panthera and the only large cat we have in America is the mountain lion, also called cougar, which is within the genus Puma, and thus not actually a “big cat”. You know, just in case US conservationists don’t actually have a grasp of basic biology and scientific classification, because obviously we wouldn’t bother to attend college and learn to read, like the author did.

With the knowledge that America doesn’t even have “real” big cats out of the way, the author moves on to even harder subjects, like just how “wicked, complex” the subject of big cat conservation is. Again, for the benefit of those of us incapable of understanding what the terms “wicked” and “complex” indicate, the author takes time to explain in detail what they mean. For anyone who doesn’t know, the CliffsNotes are complex = complicated. I know, I know, this learning thing is difficult. We’re lucky the author was gracious enough to make sure we could follow him. Anyway, the point is, conservation is hard, and lots of things effect lots of other things. And sometimes problems are hard to fix, because lots of things effect them. Moving on.

I’ll paraphrase the next three paragraphs by saying “poor people don’t give a shit about conservation because they’re busy surviving”. The author must have faced life or death danger, observing poor people in order to achieve this understanding. He doesn’t explain how we’re supposed to fix poverty before focusing on conservation, but he does say that’s what needs to happen.

Then we come to the question “What do big cats really need from you as an activist in the US?” The answer might be interesting, if he’d written one. Instead, he abandons that plot point in favor of discussing Malayan and Sumatran tigers, and loss of their habitat, as well as habitat loss due to palm oil, and the continued threat of poaching and illegal wildlife trade, circling back to how all of these things make big cat conservation both wicked and complex. The author then spends another paragraph meandering though the idea that trophy hunting is actually good for conservation, and that trophy hunting in the US is also good, because hunting licenses fund things, and control deer population. It’s important to note that he specifically cites “trophy hunting” as opposed to hunting for food. This conflicts with what all my for-food hunting friends say, but what do I know? I’m not wealthy, so I’ve been too busy surviving to educate myself.

The next two paragraphs is where the author finally gets to the point of the whole article, that point being that it’s a good thing to handle captive wild animals like lions and tigers. Sometimes. Like when Kevin does it. Because when Kevin handles his lions on his private reserve, in Africa, making movies and tv shows that glorify him playing with his captive big cats, it somehow stops indigenous peoples of Africa from shooting the lions who eat their livestock. But remember, “most organizations using the hands-on approach cause more harm than good” so you should always investigate.

Now, I found this next bit rather interesting because the author states that Kevin Richardson rescues lions from private owners, circuses, and roadside zoos, and that he spends his days becoming a member of the “various prides within his sanctuary”. One of the very first things that Richardson fans say again and again, is that Kevin only handles the pride(s) comprised of the 26 animals he bought from the lion park that supports canned hunting. So either those fans are wrong, and he handles all the cats he owns, or the author of this article is wrong, and Kevin does not handle all of his cats. Your guess is as good as mine. Either way, the author says that Kevin needs to touch his animals so he can “have the best understanding of their psychological needs”. This insinuates that 1) Lions are not capable of being happy unless a human is interacting with them (wow, I didn’t realize that every hands-off sanctuary is abusing their animals by not handling them) and 2) that since many of them came from abuse, it’s not possible to “fix” them without handling them. The author goes on to explain that Kevin handles his lions to teach the people of SA that they aren’t actually dangerous the way people fear they are. Which doesn’t really seem to have much of anything to do with handling animals on his private reserve, because there aren’t herdsmen or villages on his private reserves, but maybe they’re supposed to learn that lions aren’t dangerous osmotically or something.

The next two paragraphs (I know, it’s a long article, but the author obviously wanted to hear himself talk teach us about big cats conservation, since we don’t understand what we’re doing) address the biggest problem in the United States (exotic pet trade. See, I never knew that! Learn something every day) and that roadside zoos and cub petting are bad (again, seriously? How many US conservationists would continue thinking that taking photos with a tiger cub at a gas station wasn’t actually harmful, if the author hadn’t taking the time to tell us it was?) and that we’re being manipulated into supporting false conservation through a lack of awareness that these things are bad.

But it’s okay, the author’s got our backs. Handling big cats in South Africa is okay, because there are lots of poor people in SA, and they need to learn that lions aren’t scary by watching other people handle them. But in the US, we’re not poor, so hands-on doesn’t work. Instead, we’re so ignorant that we see what people in SA are doing when they handle big cats, and we want to copy them, so we buy cubs, or go to cub-petting facilities. Because you know, we want to be like Mike Kevin Richardson. And because we’re not smart enough to realize paying people to play with big cat cubs is bad, we keep doing it, so they keep breeding them, so we keep petting them, etc.

What the author doesn’t explain, is why teaching local farmers that lions aren’t savage man-eaters, and shouldn’t be shot, must involve camera crews, news agencies, Hollywood directors, screen writers, and so on and so forth. If the only reason Kevin is interacting with his lions is to teach locals not to fear them, then he doesn’t need a laundry list of movies, television shows, youtube specials, or documentaries to get the job done. Presumably, since socioeconomics has been cited, and poverty has been cited, not many of the cattlemen who shoot lions have widescreen TVs and cable television or internet, never mind the idle time to enjoy either one. Rather, all of the aforementioned productions are specifically designed and produced for public consumption in the west, where legends of deepest darkest Africa still outweighs truth and facts. Places where the ignorant public will gobble up the alluring phenomenon of a real life Tarzan or Mowgli. And while Kevin’s supporters angrily insist that he hates the limelight, and has no interest in it, he just keeps ending up in front of the camera. Funny, that. I mean, take Mother Teresa. Now there was someone who hated the limelight. I can remember her intentionally avoiding cameras, and turning to walk off while interviewers were actively talking to her. I’m not saying Kevin should flip reporters the bird, I’m just saying that for someone who supposedly hates attention, he doesn’t seem to have a problem being the center of it.

But what we as activist in the US really need to do is focus on the problem in the US. Because what works in Africa (I guess poaching and lion farms don’t exist anymore, because handling animals in Africa works so well) won’t work in the US. Because Africa isn’t like the US, and remember Poor people = handling lions to solve the poverty problem and teach them lions aren’t dangerous. I guess the statistics saying 550-700 people are attacked annually by lions is a lie. So, yeah, never mind, I don’t even know how to sum that up. We’ll just get on to the next paragraphs. Those’ll be exciting anyway because the author has provided us with guidance so we can unite (or not, since we’re only supposed to focus on the US, I’m still confused) and stand together.

Okay, one whole paragraph just says US conservationists are divided. And there’s a convenient, but contrived history of the “eagle holding a bundle of arrows” in the back of our dollar bill. Although the idea of the arrows being a symbol of unity sounds great, the truth is that the Iroquois and their sub-tribes, had precisely zilch to do with the creation of the Great Seal (which is the proper title for this piece of symbolism is). Rather, the arrows number thirteen, to signify the thirteen colonies in existence when the Seal was created, and they are held in the eagle’s “sinister foot” as a representation of war. So, yeah, not really about unity, but whatever. No point in letting details cloud a teaching moment, right? And maybe I’m wrong. After all, we also learned in these paragraphs that US conservationists are uneducated and unaware, and that being uneducated and unaware is our fault. More or less.

So, now we’re back to “wicked, complex” problems, and how big cat conservation is one of them. Maybe we should call it “large kitty conservation” in the US, since we don’t have *real* big cats. Either way, the author goes on to explain why we shouldn’t “bash” SA organization that pet and handle their animals (at least the ones who optimize welfare. So, if they take good care of their cats, it’s okay to play with them) and how socioeconomic factors in the US means it’s our fault we’re not spreading awareness and passing legislation. He informs us that it’s our lack of education and awareness that fosters support within the general public for “pseudo conservation organizations, like Black Jaguar White Tiger.” Poor people’s got poor ways, as the Appalachian saying goes.

The author explains that the “more US based big cat organizations continue to alienate other unique approaches, (unique? He does realize that big cats have been kept as pets and status symbols since like, the ink was still wet in the Bible, right?) the farther we push ourselves from reaching the universal goal: to save big cats.” And that if “the US focused more on our education and awareness solutions, the general public would have been able to recognize the falsehood in Black Jaguar White Tiger, instead of being its major contributor.” Huh. That’s coming from a guy who once answered an interview question with this gem: “Will people still watch Kevin in the US and say, I want one? Yes. Can they and will they go out and purchase a lion cub for $300, which is less than an iPhone? Yes.”

Now I’m confused again. According to the author, people in the US who watch Kevin will want to do what Kevin does, will be able to do it, and likely will do it. But also according to the author, it’s not Kevin’s fault that people in the US want to pet and handle big cats. So, was he lying when he responded to an interview question saying that people will watch Kevin and then mimic him? Or is he lying now, when he wrote this article stating that no, Kevin does not influence people to handle big cats? This is what makes it so very important to be careful when you’re busy “enlightening” others. You can’t just decide to tell different people different things, and have all of those things be true, even if they directly contradict each other.

He says that “we (Americans) understand that BJWT markets cub interactions” which is the extreme opposite of the welfare offered by Kevin Richardson, but that BJWT controls the industry’s perception. So, if we “understand” that BJWT is exploitive, how can it be that our ignorance is why BJWT is such a huge powerhouse? I’m pretty sure we can either know something, or not know it, but you can’t state that we don’t know the difference, which is why there’s a problem, and then rationalize that we do know the difference all the same paragraph.

We meander into a brief note about how we need to understand the profit sector, because nonprofits aren’t raking in money like profit sectors, so marketing is important. I guess that’s what Kevin’s shout-out to Zamberlan Outdoor boots the other day was about, endorsing the boots (classily displayed toe to toe with lion feet) in return for donations, or monetary compensation. That’s smart. Kevin’s using his brand to bring in money to support his cats. And totally different from Eduardo Serio of Black Jaguar White Tiger taking a photo of his Hublot-laden arm resting in the mouth of a tiger. I mean, obviously, Serio is exploiting his cats to advertise merchandise for money, and Kevin’s just posing with his lions to advertise merchandise to get support from the company that makes it. Completely 100% different. Any moron could see that.

The final few paragraphs inform readers of how they need to research who they support, and take care with how they donate money. And most importantly, do not participate in any bashing, degrading or educational activities without educating yourself first. How you’re supposed to avoid engaging in educational activities while educating yourself is a mystery to me. I guess I need more education. He cites peer-reviewed scientific journal articles (does Kevin’s biography count?) and says that readers should “shy away from new media or personal blogs” but “research blogs that use references in hyperlinks are okay”. But what about people who cannot afford to buy scientific papers (which, at least one of the links provided by the author takes you to only an abstract, and you must pay for the article to be able to read it) or people who cannot pay for large cable packages that provide educational programming? For these folks, the internet is their primary source of information. Even if they can’t afford home internet, many places, and schools provide free wifi. But if, as this author says, those people should not engage in reading “regular” blogs or online forums before properly educating themselves how are they supposed to ever have a discussion about anything? Discussion is a regular part of learning. The fact that Kevin Supporters often refuse to engage it in, reveals a great deal about their willful ignorance in the matter of handling animals. So, according to the author, who’s explaining things you should educate yourself, but not with some stuff, just other stuff. Also, in the last few days, the author’s own blog stopped using the term “blog” and now uses the term “research articles” in reference to the blog posts. Coincidence, again?

The author of this article has a Masters, and in his research he spent an “extensive” amount of time understanding the relatively new field of “cognitive ecology”. Now, cognitive ecology might be newish, but the field is derived from pre-existing fields like ecological psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary ecology, and anthropology, all of which have been around for decades at least, centuries in some cases. It bears stating that I once worked under someone who had a Masters degree pertaining to the study of gastrointestinal ulcers in equines. She knew so little about horses that she very nearly killed several of them by not recognizing complications during birth, or signs of impaction colic, but hey, she had a Masters in something equine related! Point is, you can have a lot of paper education, and still be completely ignorant. In the author’s case, it’s terribly amusing that he’s so proud of his studies in cognitive ecology, yet he overlooks decades of scientific research which proves time and again that one of the most powerful influences of brain development is Observational Learning. This is the understanding that humans learn predominantly by observing those around them within their cultures and environments. Monkey see, monkey do. Literally, people mimic what they observe. Observational learning has been around for a loooong time, however, it’s very inconvenient for Kevin Richardson supporters, who consistently claim that watching Kevin play with his animals has zero effect on the observers, and that anyone with “common sense” will understand that Eduardo Serio handling his big cats is exploitation, but Kevin handling his big cats is education.

Meanwhile, the fact that children learn by both imitation and emulation is such a firmly established fact, having been studied for decades, that scientists actually use the pre-existing foundations of such research in human development to farther the study of primates and how they learn through the same processes.  These are pretty important scientifically established processes. If the author has such a strong grasp of cognitive ecology, you’d think he’d know about this, too, inconvenient as it is for his theory of how it’s not possible for Kevin to adversely influence the tens of thousands of people who tune in to watch him play with his big cats.

There’s also this awkward issue with anthropomorphizing animals. The author clearly states in the same notes that the above quote was taken from that,

“Anthropomorphism is the action of giving animal human like qualities. Although I strongly see the similarities between animals and humans, the latest research demonstrates that we must take into consideration that animals have evolved over millions of years to fit their specific ecological niche, and therefore have acquired species specific cognitive ecology.”

This is a valid point. It’s something those of us who oppose the handling of captive wild animals strongly believe. To supplant human traits and personalities, and thought processes on animals is to lose sight of the fact that you are the human, and you are acting as a steward for them, the animal. But the author doesn’t adhere to his own philosophy for long. At the close of his interview, he says,

“Kevin Richardson IS a lion. He dedicates 100% of his day to being with his lions as one of them… Look at his videos, and you will see that when the lions are walking, Kevin is walking. When the lions are drinking, Kevin is drinking. When the lions are sleeping, Kevin is sleeping. He does not restrict their natural behaviors.”

Actually believing that Kevin is a lion, as the author clearly states he believes, is called species dysphoria or species dysmorphia which is the psychological condition often attributed to lycanthropy, or the belief that one is a werewolf, also the condition of therianthropy. Now, I doubt Kevin Richardson believes he’s actually a lion, however, here is someone taking immense pains to mansplain educate the US population as to how we’re too uneducated to grasp why it’s okay for Kevin to handle his big cats, while the author himself actually seems to believe that Kevin is, in fact, a lion. Makes total sense.

Aside from the author’s spotty application of scientific themes, there’s the fact that the author himself has worked for foundations which allow interactions between humans and big cats. He never went in with them, he says, and he “never would” but touching them is apparently okay. Him being an expert and all.

12274513_10207097003679820_2831591408274776329_n

Though that establishment currently holds a GFAS Verification (not the same as a GFAS Accreditation) they have in the past, even allowed brides to pose with their big cats large kitties.

3efc57cc07779452a0cea1b0b6487a25

There’s also evidence that the author enjoys activities which exploit animals in captivity, like riding camels at the zoo.

1910479_1002976038849_6149_n

And swimming with dolphins.

177167_3492812839402_1665788016_o

Is this a case of where it’s okay to exploit the animals because the people who own them take really good care of them? I’m not sure. It’s so hard to make informed decisions when you’re uneducated and unaware.

So, there you have it. A perfectly rational argument stating that big cat conservation is a wicked, complex problem and that the US is too ignorant to understand that Kevin Richardson handling his animals is okay, because Africa is poor and people are scared of lions, and the US is smart enough to see that what Eduardo Serio does is bad, but not smart enough to teach others that BJWT is bad, while dividing conservationists by pointing out that handling animals while telling people not to handle animals is hypocritical, and that all we need to do to further conservation in the US is to cure America’s socioeconomic problems (even though we’re not as poor as Africa, which is why it’s not okay for us to handle animals) and educate ourselves without participating in educational activities before we’ve educated ourselves. Easy peasy.