Cheetah Outreach: Does the End Justify the Means?

As I reported in a recent blog, the captive bred cheetah population is reaching epic proportions in South Africa with more than 600 cheetahs kept in about 80 facilities, like Cheetah Outreach, around the country and their conservation value is highly questionable.

Some of these captive facilities make genuine efforts to conserve the wild cheetah population with successful reintroduction programmes. Others support breeding programmes of Anatolian shepherd dogs, that are used to address human-wildlife conflict threatening predators like cheetah and leopard, by guarding livestock.

Cheetah Outreach – A Captive Cheetah Facility near Cape Town

One of those organisations is Cheetah Outreach, who have supported such Anatolian shepherd dog projects for many years and as such gained respect within the industry.

It is for this reason that I was genuinely shocked when on a recent visit I found not only 12 adult cheetahs at their facility, but also two cheetah cubs and several serval, caracal, black-backed jackal, bat-eared foxes and meerkats. Only a few are rescued animals, most are bred in captivity and hand-reared specifically to become ambassador species.

According to most facilities, these ambassador animals perform an important “educational” role by raising awareness of the plight of the cheetah. Cheetah Outreach is no exception. They use these ambassadors for educational purposes and to raise funds for Anatolian shepherd dog breeding projects.

The global move away from hands-on wildlife interactions is finally gaining traction in South Africa with tourism organisations, such as South African Tourism and SATSA, taking a firm stance against such practices. Against this background and the fact that animals are sentient beings, can we condone the (ab-)use of ambassador species for human entertainment and to raise funds for a legitimate cause?

The facts

Cheetah Outreach has 12 male adult cheetahs, all captive bred in facilities such as Cango Wildlife Ranch and Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre, and hand-reared. Eight are actively used as ambassadors that can be interacted with at their facility in Somerset West and hired for special on- and off-site functions, such as corporate events, fashion shoots, and weddings.

In addition, Cheetah Outreach offers cheetah cub petting – normally from September to March. Again, these cubs are not rescued orphans, as is often believed.

During my visit in December 2017, two five months old cubs were at the centre, both born in captivity and hand-reared. Daily interaction with the cubs of up to six hours a day (3 hrs in the morning and 3 hrs in the afternoon) is offered by the facility, at a cost of ZAR 250 per person.

During the peak summer holidays, people were queuing up for both the cub petting and adult cheetah interaction. Groups of up to six people were allowed in the cub enclosure and stayed on average for about 10 mins. Doing a rough calculation based on what we witnessed, an average of 180 people per day visit the cheetah cubs in peak season, generating ZAR 45,000 of revenue per day.

At the same time, about three adult cheetahs were also earning their keep, providing further income of ZAR 150 per adult and ZAR 90 per child for photo/selfie opportunities.

The facility is run with numerous local and international volunteers, hereby keeping their overheads to a minimum.

In the wider captive cheetah industry, once cubs outgrow the petting enclosure often at about nine months of age, they are either returned to the breeding farm, exported under CITES Appendix II for “zoological” reasons, or sold as pets to the Middle East. These guys will allegedly be heading for Sydney Zoo. Reintroduction into the wild is rarely attempted.

Cheetah Outreach – Does the End Justify the Means?

Although I would not want distract from the good Cheetah Outreach do in terms of education and raising funds for Anatolian dog breeding and livestock guarding projects, which are vital to the survival of the wild cheetah population, I do question the means by which these funds are raised.

I question the ethics of offering six hours of hands-on interaction with cheetah cubs per day. Cubs that are bred on demand.

Cubs that need to be worn out before going into the petting enclosure, according to this video posted on Facebook with the caption “Attempting to tire out these speedsters so they will sit still for their adoring public“.

Cubs that are forced to be interacted with even when they show a lack of human tolerance. During my visit, one of the cubs wanted to escape the paying public by moving outside the shaded petting area, but was still forced to be interacted with by every single person leaving the enclosure.

As I already indicated in my post the Role of Ambassador Species in Wildlife Tourism, we need to ask some vital questions here and hold wildlife facilities like Cheetah Outreach accountable.

  • How can we justify a self-perpetuating industry that breeds cheetahs in captivity, removes the cubs from their mothers, bottle feeds them, sends them to a petting facility for a few months, as the cuteness factor draws in the paying public in droves, with no attempts to reintroduce them into the wild? It guarantees a steady supply of cubs for the petting industry, but at what cost and where is the conservation value?
  • Is there a genuine need to physically interact with cubs and adult cheetahs to achieve the much-needed awareness of the conservation plight of the species?
  • Could we be equally (or more) successful in educating the public, if we allow the ambassadors to behave more naturally at a distance, while well-informed guides provide the necessary information? I doubt whether people actually adsorb the information on the ecology and conservation of wild cheetahs during the excitement of having a selfie taken with an adult or baby cheetah.
  • What are we teaching our children, when we allow them to interact with wildlife in this way? Surely there is much more value in having them experience these animals in the (semi-) wild.
  • Are we not essentially confusing education with entertainment?
  • Shouldn’t we be more honest in describing the role of such animals and admit they are pure photo props for monetary gain?
Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare sign

Cheetah Outreach near Cape Town displaying the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare.

Cheetah Outreach, how can you proudly display the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare, if so clearly you don’t meet the freedom to express normal/appropriate behaviour. Taking cubs away from their natural mothers, bottle feed them to be used for petting, and having adult cheetahs on leashes as photo props can hardly be classed as expressing a “normal pattern of behaviour”.

Cheetah Outreach, isn’t it time to go back to basics and rethink the means by which funds are raised for cheetah conservation projects, allow these ambassadors to live an as natural as possible life in captivity, and stop supporting the breeding farms? Breeding of big cats in captivity has no proven conservation value.

The #HandsOffOurWildlife movement and many others in our industry say it over and over again: hands-on wildlife interaction and cub petting has no place in our contemporary tourism industry. It is unethical and will damage Brand SA. 

Cheetahs running free at Cheetah Outreach

Source: Cheetah Outreach Facebook

Cheetah Outreach has been asked for comments on the above, but have declined the opportunity.

 

10 comments

  • Pingback: Captive Bred Cheetahs – an epidemic in South Africa? | Green Girls in Africa

  • Pingback: The role of ambassador species in wildlife tourism | Green Girls in Africa

  • I wonder why Cheetah Outreach have declined to comment, could it be because they are guilty of exploiting these beautiful animals.

  • I think it’s really sad that you could publish blatant lies about cheetah outreach. There cheetahs are not sold as pets to the middle east! Where did that information come from?
    The animals are not forced to do anything they don’t want, I’ve seen the public queuing because all encounters were stopped so the animals could take a break.
    While they do host volunteers the implication that volunteers are cheap labour and managing the animals is also untrue. The staff managing the animals know the individuals intimately and undergo extensive training before being responsible for the animals.
    I think it’s really sad that you can’t see the huge value of ambassador animals in educating our current and next generation, as well as providing the funds for the Anatolian Shepherd program. I encourage you to further research the huge difference this program has had to protect wild cheetah and other predator populations. By strategically placing these dogs thousands upon thousands of hectares of cheetah friendly habitat have been opened up.
    How can you say that cheetah outreach animals serve no conservation purpose?
    My question to you is what are you doing for cheetah conservation? If you have a better way then please stand up and show us. If you don’t please sit down so we can see those, like cheetah outreach who are standing and making a difference.

    • Hi Christy, thank you for your comment, as a healthy debate is what is needed in this space. However, I would like to just correct a few points.

      In the cheetah captive breeding industry many cheetahs are sold to the pet trade, which is rampant in the Middle East. I didn’t say Cheetah Outreach do. I actually state that the current cubs are destined for a zoo and I believe it’s these kind of captive facilities, where most of the cubs from CO end up.

      The animals are forced to an extent to do and behave they way they do, as having cheetahs on leashes and petted regularly is not a natural behaviour. Training of wildlife is a type of forced behaviour (standard dictionary definition of force is strained or unnatural).

      My exact statement on the volunteers was “The facility is run with numerous local and international volunteers, hereby keeping their overheads to a minimum”. I have never stated that volunteers are cheap labour and are used to manage the animals.

      I would categorically disagree with your statement that there is a “huge value of ambassador animals in educating our current and next generation”. As I also said in my blog on the Role of Ambassador Species in Wildlife Tourism (https://greengirlsinafrica.com/2018/01/09/role-of-ambassador-species-in-wildlife-tourism/), there is no doubt that wildlife encounters can evoke lasting memories and transformative experiences. However, there is a growing belief that in order to enhance the visitor’s experience, evoke powerful memories, and encourage visitors to adopt environmentally responsible behaviour in response to their visit, does NOT require the physical touching of the animals. I actually doubt whether people adsorb the information on the plight of wild cheetahs during the excitement of having a selfie taken with an adult or baby cheetah.

      On several occasions in my blog do I acknowledge the good work of Cheetah Outreach in terms of education and raising funds for Anatolian dog breeding and livestock guarding projects. I question however the way these funds are raised by using captive cheetahs for hands-on interactions. Our national tourism body, South African Tourism, say NO to hands-on animal interactions (https://www.southafrica.net/za/en/travel/article/say-no-to-animal-interaction) and many tourism associations around the world are banning hands-on wildlife encounters.

      My intention is to open a debate to a more appropriate ways of managing captive wildlife, so there are both tourism and conservation benefits without the need for hands-on interaction.

  • As an expert on cheetah biology I would have to say you are a little out on a ledge here, particularly when you say the following blanket comment:
    ‘Breeding of big cats in captive has no proven conservation value.’ That is blatantly untrue. Captive breeding populations provide a hedge against extinction (look up Amur leopard and Spanish lynx for example), provide research animals to learn more about the species (as a wildlife physiologist I can’t emphasize this point enough) and educating the public, etc. I could go on but you can look it up yourself. I would suggest the fb page zoos saving species to get some further insight.
    As far as the value of outreach animals you don’t have to look any further than Laurie Marker’s Cheetah Conservation Foundation. By introducing farmers to outreach cheetah she has made a huge impact on their attitudes towards cheetah – there is nothing like a purring cheetah to make you fall in love with them. And the critical and valuable work CCF are doing for cheetah has just increased over the years, including developing the Anatolian guard dog program.
    I do agree that some institutions are ‘conservation washing’ their activities and that the use of animals in any capacity needs to be regulated in order to maximize animal welfare. I’m not sure if this facility is accredited by PAAZAB? But in North America AZA accredited facilities can’t sell or give animals to non-accredited facilities so giving cubs away as pets is not allowed. Regardless, from what I have seen on TV and online (although I haven’t visited this particular facility while in SA), there are perhaps other facilities that would better illustrate your concerns. And the best way to ensure ‘conservation washing’ is not used to cause animal distress is to use science to inform and change policy. I would suggest you and the other ‘green girls’ in your group seriously consider pursuing degrees in science or law and policy if you really want to make a lasting difference in conservation.

    • While you may consider “Breeding of big cats in captivity has no proven conservation value” to be a blanket statement, it is in fact a consensus viewpoint in the conservation community in SA and is not merely my personal opinion. Many wildlife and conservation organisations, like Panthera and EWT, also consider this to be valid, at least in a southern African context.

      The captive breeding efforts of zoos to avoid extinction of certain species without generally having the necessary wilderness areas to release these animals, is in my view not conservation. However, I gladly agree to disagree on this topic, as it is a controversial debate between the zoological and conservation communities.

      The captive breeding of lions, tigers and cheetahs in South Africa however has become epidemic with an estimated 260 breeding/captive facilities of lions (and often tigers) housing at least 7,000 lions and 80+ cheetah breeding/captive facilities across the country with more than 600 captive cheetahs. The vast majority of the breeding facilities are not conversation focused, but have purely monetary goals. I am sure you are aware of the canned lion industry, if not I suggest you watch the documentary Blood Lions.

      I would not dispute that some captive wildlife facilities in SA have important roles to fulfil in providing forever homes for the many captive bred animals that can’t be released into the wild. Some even contribute to conservation, as does Cheetah Outreach, however I reiterate my point I am making in the blog above that I question the need to raise the funds for conservation through hands-on interaction with the captive wildlife. We do make these ambassador species photo props for tourists.

      I agree on the potential educational value of captive wildlife, as I also clearly state in my blog on the role of ambassador species in wildlife tourism (https://greengirlsinafrica.com/2018/01/09/role-of-ambassador-species-in-wildlife-tourism/). With large portions of the world population being disconnected from nature, captive animals can play an important role in experiential learning and reconnecting with nature. However, I don’t agree that this necessarily needs to involve hands-on interaction with the animals. I believe that some captive facilities need to adjust their business model, as this (sadly government supported) captive wildlife industry is starting to damage Brand SA, a hugely important multi-million Rand industry contributing an estimated 9.3% to our GDP.

  • “At about nine months of age, the cheetah cubs outgrow the petting enclosure, at which point they are either returned to the breeding farm, exported under CITES Appendix II for “zoological” reasons (these guys will allegedly be heading for Sydney Zoo), or sold as pets to the Middle East.”

    Actually you have written this. You were writing specifically about Cheetah Outreach, and what happens to their specific cubs, eg. The two heading to Sydney Zoo.
    I’m sure Cheetah Outreach would appreciate a retraction and apology for this false information, I certainly would.
    You also haven’t answered my question about what are you doing for Cheetah conservation, and offering a viable alternative to the program that Cheetah Outreach operates.
    You write about these topics. But apart from trying to taint public perception on a quality facility like Cheetah Outreach, what are you actually actively doing to improve the future for cheetah? Or other wildlife?

    • As it is never my intention to make false allegations, I have slightly changed the wording of this paragraph to avoid misinterpretation.

      At no point do I dispute the cheetah conservation efforts of Cheetah Outreach and actually specifically state that I would not want to take away from the good they do for cheetah education and conservation. I clearly question the means by which the funds for these conservation efforts are raised, i.e. with hands-on cheetah interactions. One does not need to actively be involved in a field to have an educated opinion. However, being actively involved in the sustainable tourism industry, I know that these activities don’t reflect positively on Brand SA and as I emphasise again are actively discouraged by SA Tourism, our national tourism board.

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