By Madison Waggoner
Throughout my life, animals have always provided me with a sense of calm and serenity. I have felt pulled in the direction of animal rehabilitation for many years and this curiosity aligned with my passion for animals which lead me to study abroad in South Africa. In the course of three weeks, my eyes were opened to a very different side of many wildlife rehabilitation centers.
Before flying to South Africa, my admiration for the work of wildlife rehabilitation centers worldwide was completely changed after watching the documentary Blood Lions. I struggled to finish it because I was shocked and plagued with disgust at the reality of animal treatment at many different wildlife rehabilitation centers. The documentary focused on the common occurrence of breeding programs posing as rehab or orphan centers with the hidden purpose of farming lions in captivity for canned hunting. As opposed to non-canned hunting, which can involve weeks of preparation and tracking, the lions at these facilities are kept in a small fenced area while eager trophy hunters pay extremely high sums to shoot them, while the captive lion has no escape. Because the animals have been raised by humans, they are much less shy when around them and are often unable to differentiate between the positive human interactions they have grown up with and a trophy hunter with the intent to kill. Many times the lions do not try to escape or show any aggression towards the hunter because of the comfort they feel around people.
The film also depicted the harsh reality surrounding volunteers and how they unwittingly play a major role in keeping the facilities moving. Eager to help and likely coming with many of the assumptions I had, volunteers from all over the world pay thousands of dollars for the opportunity to “rehabilitate” these animals. What these well-intentioned individuals do not realize is that they are actually paying to raise lions for canned hunting while the so-called volunteer organization reaps massive profits. The volunteers spend their time socializing, bathing, and feeding these lion cubs without realizing the harm the work they are doing is causing. These volunteers are told preposterous lies, many believing they are nursing orphaned baby animals back to health with the goal of reintroducing them to the wild. In the end, these lion cubs are raised with love just to be killed for money and the eager hearts of the volunteers are taken advantage of.
The market is propelled almost solely by American trophy hunters with a false belief that they are playing a positive role in conservation. While hunting certain species in specific areas can benefit the ecosystem, this is simply not the case with canned hunting operations in South Africa. The hunters are blatantly deceived, being told anything to keep the profits flowing for a great number of game ranches. The price of these canned lions has increased nearly 300% year over year, driven almost exclusively by American hunters wanting to kill a unique animal without the time and intricacies of a genuine hunt.
Having grown up around the practice, I have never been bothered by responsible hunting and I struggle to even consider these operations as a genuine form of hunting. There is no skill involved, no patience required, and the animals are subdued or otherwise unable to defend themselves as they would in the wild; the playing field is the farthest thing from fair. This is a simple act of killing a living being for a selfish sense of empowerment.
After discovering the dark reality of many wildlife rehabilitation centers, I have begun to question many worldwide “rehabilitation” efforts. I have always been so confident in what I assumed every center would be like, and this certainly revealed the naiveté of my mindset. This experience provoked me to always dig deeper and discover for myself the true consequences of my actions. Incredible wildlife rehabilitation centers do exist, and through this amazing experience in South Africa, I feel more confident in identifying the true purpose behind any center I might come across.