Often volunteers look for and ask us about missions where they can interact with wild cats. And more than often we hear that the motivation for joining projects allowing these types of interactions is a way for them of affirming their love for these cats. But by getting so close to them, are we really helping those animals we love so dearly?
Who would not understand the fascination that these beautiful animals have on us. At Earthwise Aware we love them as well and here we share what we often answer when asked for advice: prefer volunteering ‘for’ them rather than ‘with’ them…
At EwA we love big cats (as any other animal actually), although in our case we are not referring to an anthropomorphic type of love (e.g., seeing animals and behaving with them as they are pets) but rather considering the term ‘love’ as meaning trying to do the right thing to ensure the preservation of the species and their habitats, and caring ethically about a particular individual when needs be. So for a lot of species, people have to realize that it means avoiding direct interactions with these animals when this is possible, so as to give them a chance to survive, to live a true wild life according to their species’ needs, or simply to give them a chance to live when they are to be released. This applies to big cats.
Is that less ‘fun’? Not at all! As an example, I was recently in Costa Rica on a wild cat monitoring mission. The work was to track data to evaluate the health of the area as a sustainable habitat for big cats. Of course, the bigger hope was to data-trap –say– a Jaguar. Well we did not see a single one during the mission, not even on motion-sensor cameras. Nevertheless, it was a gift to be a guest of the forest and enjoy its wonders. And if cats were ‘there’, then we were very happy that they did not come into our vicinity: why? Simple: An invisible Jaguar is a fit Jaguar, one that has a better chance of survival in a world where they have less and less land space and resource to live as we invade and exploit all habitats, all ecosystems. We trapped the print of a puma though (a.k.a. mountain lion), as well as confirmed and furthered its identification (male puma) a few days later when analyzing a motion camera’s records. What a beautiful sighting! –again on camera. There as well, it is better for the puma to not have crossed our path and most likely he probably avoided us. Why was it better? A habituated puma is a puma that fears no more and therefore is a potential problem cat or a likely future victim to hunting which runs in the area where we were stationed.
So then what are the problems with volunteering with wild cats? What are good options to help them? Are there good sanctuaries?
Big Cats and the ethics of volunteering
There is a lot of confusion and misinformation on the topic of volunteering in or visiting cat sanctuaries.
If you think about volunteering ‘for’ them, we suppose that like us you wish to volunteer so as to make a difference, ensuring their well-being (when we know how) and working towards the preservation of the species. Some of what we raise below might sound a little grim, but this is important knowledge for the good of the cats. An informed volunteer is truly invaluable!
Nowadays, there are countless volunteering opportunities to interact closely with big cats (pet them, feed them, play with them, walk with them, sleep with them). These opportunities are actually harmful and criminal. An example of such ‘projects’ can be found in South Africa, where many volunteers have been lured for more than a decade (and still are) into volunteering with lion cubs. Down the line, these lions once older are sold to canned hunting facilities or sent to a life in captivity. Good documentaries about this issues are for instance: Saving Serabie  (which won a prize in New York for best conservation documentary last October), or the 2015 Blood Lions  documentary that raised attention to the criminal scam of lions breeding facilities that fuel the canned hunting industry, and such. For an insightful accounting of the experience of a volunteer, you can check this recent post: Volunteering with lion cubs in Africa – what I wish I had known! . Ourselves, we published a short article on the topic last year: Cub Petting: Cute and Harmful . Know that what applies to lions generally applies to all wild cats.
A strong hint: any volunteer organization that allows close interactions with a big cat (including lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar) is not a conservation organization. Close interactions with non-expert volunteers and untrained staff are very detrimental to the cats. Additionally, and in an overwhelming majority of the cases, big cats that have had close interactions with humans cannot be rewilded/released successfully. These are wild captive animals. Contact means sealing a captive fate or worse.
As for volunteering in America with big cats: it is also known that a lot of institutions that pose as sanctuaries or zoos do not follow any regulation and are truly not conservation institutions [1,2] – even though they claim to be. At Earthwise Aware, we cannot vouch for any of these institutions as they do not constitute volunteering opportunities for wildlife conservation or wildlife sanctuaries, but are rather unethical volunteering options in captive animals facilities.
Now does this mean that volunteering in a legitimate wildlife rescue center or sanctuary is a bad idea? No. It all depends on the species you will work with (Read more: Volunteering with captive wild animals? ).
We find that the best way to volunteer for wildlife conservation is to volunteer in monitoring programs in the wild, and certainly when it comes to cats. Some programs can be hard to join for sure, but this is for the good of the animals.
There are few good programs in Africa: Some of our followers have worked in some of these big cats monitoring in the wild and have said very good things about them. Contact us if you wish to discuss up-to-date options.
Wild cat monitoring in the US is about our wild cats. You would be surprised to know that many people think we have all big cats species on our soil. But no: we don’t have tigers (note that the US has more captive tiger pets than there tigers remaining in the wild), lions, cheetahs, and leopards. We barely have one Jaguar – we thought there was no Jaguar left in America, yet one showed up recently, most likely coming from South/Central America. However, we have bobcats and mountain lions, which numbers are declining overall due to habitat fragmentation, habitat loss, and hunting… There are several scientific organizations that might help in understanding if there are opportunities to volunteer in monitoring programs, one of those organizations being the Mountain Lion Foundation.
The virtue of informed volunteering
Let us remind ourselves that volunteering is a true job. And as such it requires preparation. But this is a great opportunity to learn, help, undo wrongs, identify shady organizations and report them. As well as volunteering gives us the possibility to find those gems, those great organizations and praise them so that standards and ethics are raised everywhere else!
We view volunteering as being truly noble when it is mindful and ethical. What we find encouraging these days, is that more and more volunteers realize this and share their words of wisdom to others and publicly. Here are for instance 5 lessons  that a humanitarian volunteer recently shared and that applies so tightly to wildlife conservation volunteers:
- As a volunteer, you must have appropriate skills.
- As a volunteer, you have a responsibility to think of the long-term impact of your actions.
- You need to find out what you don’t know before you go.
- Volunteers can undermine local initiatives for change.
- It doesn’t make sense to support badly-run organizations.
Again an informed volunteer is invaluable because he/she raises the standards of the ethics of volunteering and doing so truly helps Conservation.
References & Further Reading…
✩ Please take the time to consult The EwA Complete Guide to Choosing Nature & Nature Venues. It is a comprehensive and easy guide to facilitate your research of Wildlife/Nature conservation volunteering or citizen science opportunities. It gives you tools for getting a sense of the ethics and relevance of the venue, as well as it helps you understand your motivation, define your goal(s) and match your needs.
✩ And if you intend to spend time in a captivity center (including zoos, sanctuaries, rescue centers), then you can refer to The EwA Zoo Evaluation Essentials.
 Legitimate Sanctuaries versus Pseudo-Sanctuaries. Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.
 Sanctuary Standards. Big Cat Rescue (2015).
 How can you tell if a zoo takes good care of its animals? Washington Post, Brian Palmer (2011).
 How To Tell Whether Your Local Zoo Is Hell For Animals. The Dodo (2015)
 Saving Serabie: The Fight Against Lion Hunting. Winner documentary of the 2015 Wildlife Conservation Film festival –A documentary film about the fate of farmed lions for the sole purpose of feeding the hunting industry.
 Blood Lions –Blood Lions follows environmental journalist and safari operator Ian Michler, and Rick Swazey, an American hunter, on their journey to uncover the realities about the multi-million dollar predator breeding and canned lion hunting industries in South Africa.
 Volunteering with lion cubs in Africa – what I wish I had known! The experience of a volunteer, and things you should be aware of before applying to similar programs…
 Cub Petting: Cute and Harmful. Earthwise Aware (2015) –Before considering cub petting or volunteering in a facility that allows close interactions with cubs, pause, research and think about the consequences…
 I Volunteered At An Orphanage, And Now I Campaign Against It. By Anna McKeon from the Better Care Network (2016) –An interesting read about our impact as volunteers. And a lot of what is being said in this cautionary tale also applies to animal rescue and wildlife conservation volunteering.
 Volunteering with Captive Wild Animals? Earthwise Aware (2016) –Volunteering in a wildlife rescue can be a good experience as long as it does not harm voluntarily or involuntarily the species. Quick tips on how to recognize them, and what to do to prepare.
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