Petting baby lions in South Africa

My name is Anda and I am obsessed with lions. I have spent hours in different zoos observing these magnificent animals, although this “hobby” can be quite frustrating. First of all, I believe no animal should be locked up in a cage, at least not in a space too small to ensure a decent quality life. Lions are huge, they need space to grow, run, develop their muscles and catch their own food. Anything else is almost the same as torture. Secondly, lions are big lazy bastards and it can take hours before they move. Seeing lions in their natural environment has thus been on my bucket for as long as I can remember. And so has cuddling a baby lion. My dreams have finally come true in South Africa. But only after learning a few very important facts about lions and lion cubs which helped me to put my big moral dilemma aside.

Principles first!

I usually don’t feel the need to explain my actions to general public, however petting lion cubs (or any cubs for that matter) is a very delicate subject so I will make an exception here and point out a few things about me:

  1. Every time I see or hear about animal being tortured, I report it to the police or respective authorities.
  2. I never eat products from baby animals (such as lambs or baby cows), in fact, I rarely eat meat at all.
  3. I try to act responsible to the environment as much as I can – you won’t see me litter but you will hear me nag about plastic bags and straws.
  4. If my activity would (consciously) cause animal getting hurt, I would immediately abandon it. Spiders and mosquitos are excluded from this category.

So, I hope I made it clear that I am not one of those “picture at all costs” spoiled bitches. I am well aware that the actions I took in South Africa are to some extent questionable (after all, I did fly there and contributed to air pollution), however I believe I did my best to follow the principles I stated above. Having said that, I am now moving on to the main reason you are probably reading this post, asking yourself: is petting a lion cub safe, how do lion cubs end up in places like this, what do they do with the cubs when they grow up, are their mothers hurting and many other questions.

On our way to Vuyani Safari Lodge I had a privilege to talk to an experienced driver-guide Phillip, who deeply cares about nature and animals. I will only focus on the lion part of our discussion at this point. He told me that there are many lion parks in South Africa where you can see lions and interact with lion cubs, however most of them are raised to be killed by animal hunters. First, I was shocked to hear that shooting lions in South Africa is even legal. And second, that the lions are actually being raised for hunting. Can you imagine cuddling a baby lion knowing it will be shot just a couple of months later? Fuck off, humans!

I was sick to the bones and literally cried while listening to the terrible stories (I am even crying now when I am writing this post). Fortunately, he said there are a few decent and honest reserves where they raise and take care of lions for various reasons: they are either hurt or brought over by owners who are not able to take care of them anymore. One of these parks is Lion & Safari park in Broederstroom near Johannesburg.

Investigating further about this park, and especially after reading their statement about lion cubs’ interaction had me convinced that visiting Lion & Safari Park was the right thing to do. In fact, the management even tried to shut down this activity but suffered a great decline of visitors due to that. If other parks are reluctant to do the same and you have people and families depending on your income, then I can somehow understand their decision. I was especially moved by these words: “In light of our commitment to eradicate cub petting we are willing to join with other organizations and the government to ban cub petting altogether. In the meantime, we can assure everyone that our lion cubs ARE NEVER SOLD TO HUNTERS. We abhor the concept of canned hunting and it is disappointing that wild assumptions and false accusations abound without even a shred of evidence to support them.” You can read the full statement here.


Having learned some facts from Lion & Safari park rangers, doing my own web research and talking to Phillip, I will now try to answer the most important questions about lion cub interaction:

How do lion cubs end up in a lion park – do they take them away from their mother?

Tears again. A lioness can have from 1 to 6 cubs and the larger the number, the more are the chances she will reject one or two of her babies. This literally means she stops feeding and taking care of them. The Lion & Safari park staff observes the situation for a few days and when they are certain that the baby is condemned to starvation, they take it away to take care of it. In the nature the cubs are unfortunately not so lucky – apart from starvation they can be killed by the male lion, jaguars, hyenas, and sometimes even eaten by their own mother (if she is unable to catch food for the entire litter).

How old are the cubs and is cuddling a lion cub safe?

The cubs I saw were around 4 months old and they were pretty devilish already. I was so excited to touch them that I ignored the instructions: “avoid the head and the tail”. I went straight for the head of the brown baby lion and he took my hand and bit it. I got a bit scared and while I managed to pull my hand away, he was already biting my leg. Like that was not big enough of a lesson, I stretched my hand towards the white one and he REALLY did a hole in my wrist. Seriously, I got quite scared for a second – the hole was a couple of millimeters deep, and if the little guy wanted, he could have done some serious damage to me. I was more careful afterwards and only cuddled them on the belly. If you follow the rules petting is safe but not suitable for small kids.

How much time do you get with the cubs?

They say you get 2 minutes, but it depends on the number of people in the group. We were lucky to be alone and we got almost 10 minutes with the little devils. We could take photos, and also the staff kindly and patiently took photos of us. They told us that cubs are usually in a playful mood in the morning and evening. In between they are much more like their parents – lazy and sleepy.

What do they do with the cubs after they grow up?

After the cubs are too old for petting (around 6 months), they are kept in the park until they die of natural causes. Sometimes they donate them to reputable zoos and parks, keeping everything very transparent. The lions are all micro-chipped so that their movements can be monitored and physically inspected throughout their lives.

What is the price of lion cub interaction?

In Lion & Safari park you have to buy a tour ticket (around 1,5 hours enjoyable and very informative safari drive through the estate where you can see lions, zebras, giraffes, hyenas and more) in order to be able to buy lion cub petting ticket. For 2 persons I paid ZAR 630, which was around 40€. I’d say this is a very fair price, considering the investments into the park and the care the animals get.

What I learned from this experience

I learned quite a few lessons with this wonderful and yet very delicate lion cub encounter. First of all, lions are not pets and having experienced that with my own “blood” I can say that my “lust for more” is now over. Sure, they are cute as hell, and I will keep on making stupid sounds when I see them, but I am probably done with petting for good. Second, if you have a very big desire to do the same, please make sure you go to a verified park where lions are not sold for hunting. At last, but not the least, nature is nature, and humans will be humans. Like it is not natural to pet or own a lion, it is also not normal to expect that a country (or organization) which depends on tourism will abandon these activities overnight. After all, they all have bills to pay and children to feed. As long as they are doing things with love and respect for animals, I guess I’ll have to be ok with it.

I will be happy to receive your comments and experience of your own. Do you support or condone cuddling lion cubs? Are there any parks you would definitely not recommend – are we ready to make a black list together? Scroll down and leave me a comment!

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  1. Hello! It’s Queen from Hyde Park, which is the best place to interact with lion cubs in Johannesburg? I have a friend coming from Spain next week and she would love to meet the cubs.

    1. Hi Queen, I am not from South Africa and I can only recommend the one I visited in Broederstroom – you can see the link in this post.

  2. Hello. I really liked your article and wanted to know where you would recommend to go to visit and pet lion cubs for my family and I? We are headed to Sun City S. Africa in about a week.

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