Petting a lion has been on my bucket list since I first visited Africa 10 years ago. The possibility of touching the fur of these fierce, beautiful cats was one I couldn’t pass up – so when we arrived in Zambia I immediately booked a Lion walk with Mukuni Big 5.
They had a combo package where I could walk with both lions and cheetahs – and no one needed to twist my arm into taking them up on it.
Jordan chose not to come as he wasn’t able to find any regulatory body that ensured that the companies that offer these lion encounters are actually doing what they say they’re doing with the animals (namely, working on conservation and increasing the lion population in the wild). Mukuni says they aim to breed cheetah and lions and release them in to the wild, but as yet they haven’t actually done this. I’ll admit that I’m with Jordan on the ethics, but shamefully my urge to walk with a lion stuffed my morals in the back seat. I definitely checked what the conditions for the animals are, especially since in Thailand I went to pet tigers and instantly regretted it when I saw how the animals were being kept.
So I was picked up early in the morning from our hostel and taken to the private reserve of Mukuni Big 5. There, after signing a waiver and paying, the group of 8 of us taking part in the Lion Walk were introduced to our guide.
He had us stop and grab a stick and then gave us a briefing on how to behave around the lions. The stick wasn’t for any cruel purpose, it’s simply for them to bite and chew on when they’re feeling playful (instead of your hand).
After our briefing we were walked further into the reserve – a huge open area, where a male and female lion, siblings, were chilling out. The handlers had drawn a line in the sand and told us not to cross it.
After one of the handlers showed us how to approach the lions (from behind, talking to them so they know you’re there) and how to pet them (never inside the ears, always firm enough so that it doesn’t tickle), we were each given the opportunity to pet Ada, the male. Laura, the female, is apparently skittish and she wasn’t in the mood to be around people, so she just got up and walked off.
While we each took our photos and petted Ada, the handlers kept him focused on them by running around in front of him. He was pretty chill, but apparently that’s because he had eaten yesterday (adults only eat once a week).
After a while Ada got up and decided to go for a walk. First he relieved himself, and then he just started walking. The handlers told us to follow him, but never to pass him or to run.
We took turns walking beside him, just following him where he was going.
Eventually, after about an hour, the lions went into their enclosure. It was a fenced area with the same bush/wilderness as the open area we had been visiting them in. I wasn’t happy to learn it was an enclosure – since the handler kept saying that they roam free, are free to hunt, etc.
After we finished we were told to wash our hands, and then we waited for the cheetah handler to come and fetch us for our cheetah encounter.
The cheetahs immediately came to the door of their enclosure as we approached, purring. The handler said it was contentment – but I know that cats purr when they’re content as well as when they’re anxious, so I took that with a pinch of salt.
When the cheetahs came out each handler walked them over to us and they instantly laid down. The handler explained how to approach, and what to do in reaction to different things the cheetahs might do. One of them apparently likes to lick people, so he showed us to just close our hand into a fist and let it happen, but to not jerk our hand away. As he did this, the cheetah he was demonstrating with started to lick him. He pet her affectionately and she purred and laid out – it was like watching a domestic cat – an oversized one.
We each took turns (now a group of 16, split in to 2 groups of 8 for each cheetah) petting the cheetah. I rubbed her behind her ears and heard her purr. It really was like petting a cat – she raised her chin so I could rub underneath it and then laid herself down. The handlers told me if I wanted I could lay beside her.
I even took a selfie (after asking if it was okay to put my hand in front of her like that – just in case it was an invitation to bite).
At one point she heard a truck from much further than we could see, and she took off running. The handler said that her food always comes by a car so she was looking to see if that was lunch. I did notice that the cheetahs showed a great deal of curiosity – always looking around them – whereas the lions were pretty much interested in chilling out.
Eventually the two cheetahs got up and decided to start walking. The handler who had been licked by one before got up to follow them and they nuzzled up to him, rubbing their faces into the palms of his hands. It was clear that he spends the most time with them and that they knew him.
We were all led out of the enclosure we were in with the cheetahs and took turns holding the lead to walk them – though we weren’t really walking them so much as they were walking, with us following. At no point were we allowed to put tension on the lead – so if the cheetah sped up, you sped up with it!
Eventually after everyone had had a chance to walk, they were returned to their enclosure – again within one hour.
I had thought that was the end of the activity – but after our handler took us back to reception and told us to wash our hands he told me I could also interact with the two lion cubs they had. I was the only one doing this as the other people in my group, from Japan, were on a tight schedule. I was led to the enclosure with 2 cubs, male & female, both 5 months old and siblings.
As it was just me and the handler, this was far more laid back – I asked before crouching down to take a picture and he told me I could pet them, as long as I came from behind. He warned me that as they were cubs they might want to play, which sounded fantastic to me, so I grabbed a string (which, for a lion, is actually a rope) and treated them the way I would any kitten, dangling it to and fro and having them jump for it. They obliged, taking huge leaps in the air to catch it (where I had to jump out of the way so that they wouldn’t land on me, since the rope was directly in front of me).
Eventually they were both going for the rope, and I thought it best to let them have it. This started a classic sibling rivalry that ended in rough housing with full biting and scratching.
When they were a bit more chilled out, I went to pet one (the male) and he showed me his belly – so naturally I rubbed it. The stick came in handy here as he wanted something to play with and as soon as I put it near his muzzle he chomped down and started wrestling with it.
So we had a mini tug of war – which his sister decided to get in on as well, though on the other side of the stick. So there I was sandwiched between two lion cubs, each biting different ends of the stick.
After about 40 minutes I was told by the handler it was time to go. The cubs were still playing with each other as we slipped out of the enclosure. Again, I was told to wash my hands, and then I was led to the same car that had picked me up. They dropped me off back at the hostel and I was still playing the last few hours through my mind when I walked in. The experience was amazing.
In writing this post, however, I did a bit of research that I should have done prior to going on the activity. I guess I wanted to stick my head in the sand and believe that it was more about conservation (since that’s what they claim), and that since the animals were in much better conditions than the tigers I met in Thailand it was all okay. But the reality is a wild animal should never be captive: not in a zoo, and not in a place that presents itself as a conservation effort but allows human contact. The reading I’ve done points out a huge fallacy in that – why would a lion need to interact with a human for conservation? There is no benefit to the animal whatsoever, and if anything it would rather be left alone. You can’t release an animal that’s had human contact back in to the wild, at any rate. Add to that the fact that cubs are separated from their mother (when in a pride they would stay with her for years) and it just seemed to get worse and worse. Yes – the living conditions were much better than what I saw in Thaliand (where the tigers were in concrete cages and when they were let out they were chained to the ground and doped out of their minds) but that’s about where the benefits stop. There’s also a lack of transparency about what happens to the lions after they’re done being ‘useful’ for lion walks and encounters. Mukuni Big 5 says they intend to release them to game reserves, but they have yet to do this, and they definitely didn’t specify whether or not these “game reserves” are hunting reserves. If they are, then they’ve condemned the animal who’s had a miserable life of walking 3 times a day with eager tourists wanting to pet them to certain death at the hands of a hunter. It makes this experience bittersweet. It was incredible, absolutely, but I shouldn’t have done it and should have respected the animal enough to appreciate it only the way it’s meant to be appreciated – by occasional glimpses in the wild.