Johannesburg – Signs warning visitors to the Lion Park to never leave their vehicles and to shut their windows while viewing the lions “don’t cut it” because people don’t always follow the rules. “I think they are making money by sending people into a very high-risk environment,” Shannon McKay, an animal behaviour expert, told the Saturday Star this week. “If it wasn’t one, there wouldn’t be 49 warning signs up. “I believe Lion Park has a responsibility to not operate on an assumption-based safety procedure in a high-risk environment… to assume that people will follow the rules.
“Because people don’t.”
McKay was reacting to the death of American tourist Katherine Chappell at the Fourways facility, after she was mauled by a lioness that had lunged through her open car window while she was photographing the animal. The management of the Lion Park have insisted the park is safe – if people follow the rules. But McKay doesn’t believe its doing enough. “They can put up more signs – people don’t always behave rationally. Visitors will have seen pictures of people handling lion cubs and hanging out with adult cubs, and think maybe these lions are not that dangerous like the ones in the Kruger National Park.
“They are so much more dangerous. They are confined in small spaces that don’t allow them to behave as lions do. They don’t get to stalk and hunt as natural lions should do and this sets up potential for something to go wrong. Importantly, she says, the park’s lions are habituated to human beings, from an early age. “They are handled from the time they are a few days old. The natural aversions that wild lions have to people are now absent.”
She believes it would be feasible for the Lion Park to only allow access to its lion enclosures in park-owned vehicles. “The Lion Park has the ability to say this will never happen again.” Scott Simpson, the assistant operations manager of the Lion Park, responds: “We’re conducting our own internal investigation, and once we have those results, we’ll look at any measures that need to be changed or if any additional measures need to be introduced. You have to remember these measures have been in place for many years and have been updated many times.”
The Lion Park will release information about its own investigation next week. “The lioness remains with the rest of her pride in Camp two (where the attack happened). The camp will remain closed until the investigation is complete.”
Linda Park, of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting, says because the Lion Park promotes petting and walking with wildlife, “the impression is therefore given that these animals are no longer wild, but tame. “Lions in captive breeding facilities endure stress and boredom, and often exhibit behaviour that would not be seen in the wild. “Youngsters in the camps have been damaging vehicles, trying to open doors and generally behaving like delinquents … this is the third incident in four months. What will it take to make drastic changes?”
Christine Macsween, a director of Lionaid, a UK lion charity, agrees: “Carnivores should be left in the wild. We put them in a situation where they are habituated to humans. “Remember it’s a wild animal – and wild animals can be unpredictable.”