VOLUNTEERING WITH LIONS
I love animals. Always have. Always will. Should have been a vet, not a doctor – but that’s another story. I generally prefer small ones, ones I can touch, feel, get up close and personal with. Maybe because that increases my bond with them, which leads to a natural desire to protect and conserve them?
So, spending a week as a volunteer at Kevin Richardson’s Lion Sanctuary near Johannesburg was a little out of my comfort zone, although I have always had a natural affinity for cats.
My first exposure to lions in captivity was in a lion conservation park in Cape Town a few years before. They were looking after many rescued lions, including the rare white lions which I had never seen before. And as if on cue, when I was trying to take some close up zoomed footage of a pair of them that were close to our fence, they began, err, well doing it. Show offs. And boy, they do it quick too, no messing about, no foreplay. Bonobo monkeys have NOTHING on these lions!
But these are BIG cats, with big paws, or rather HUGE paws and claws, and teeth. Did I mention the teeth? Yes they use those to eat meat, serious meat, and kilos of it. All I can say is thank god I was not a vegetarian. If you are, then this is not the job for you. Without a doubt, not for you!
As Kevin explained one day, when looking after lions (including cheetah, leopard and hyenas as he had all of them at his sanctuary) you will have to get used to meat, lots of it. Which means blood, flies, smell…and poop, big poop and very smelly poop if you are unlucky enough to have to go in and pick up fresh poop (let it be fully cooked, blanched and sterilised in the hot African sun for a few days or more, I say!).
Kevin’s lions all had a long history of being with him. He had brought most of them over from various lion parks were he had worked prior to setting up his own sanctuary. There they would live out their natural life in dignity. This meant he knew them, and they were very familiar with him. He was part of their pack, and the leader too. So his demeanor around them was that of being the one in charge. If not, they would not respect him.
Whilst that meant Kevin could go into their enclosures in ‘total’ safety, that did not mean the same for us. We had to learn the ‘safety’ rules of how to access their feeding or night houses and enclosures when they needed to be cleaned or at feeding times. And there was a very specific routine to go through so no-one got hurt.
Whenever we had to access either one or the other, the cats were locked in or out of their spaces so we could clean or put food in the other.
But one day, one of the lions in a group needed to be separated off from the others to give it a little more food than the others and to stop those from taking it from him. So the usual routine of putting the great big lumps of meat in a feed house was changed to locking the others of his group in one, whilst he was locked outside in their big enclosure.
Then we had to lug a massive joint of horsemeat and throw it over the high electric fence whilst standing on the back of a ute or ‘backy’ as it is called in Africaans. An interesting exercise I thought. Feeding our little 2kg sphynx cat back home with little sachets of processed cat food is a breeze compared to these guys.
And just in case you think these are just big pussy cats, think again. When they roar, it sends a blood curdling feeling up your spine if you are not expecting it. One day however, one boy started roaring, and set off another in his enclosure, which led to them doing it in unison. Neat trick I thought, until they ran out of steam and one fell over exhausted. Very funny!
[Photos and Videos by Tony and Irene Isaacson]