Like many of you reading this, I am a huge animal lover and have always wanted to contribute to playing my part in helping them. With this in mind I set off to Ukutula Lion Park and Lodge and couldn’t wait to get involved.
After our briefing from the owners, I had a tour of the park. At first I completely taken aback by the sheer beauty of these animals and the environment. The tour started by being shown around the cubs enclosure (11 weeks) and The Devils (slightly older than the cubs; 3.5 months to 6 months).
Having never been so close to a wild animal as incredible as the lion, I was overcome with excitement. Looking back now, I can definitely see how easy it is to lure people in. I was then taken to see the bigger lions, including an absolutely beautiful male white lion. He was in an enclosure on his own and came bounding over to the fence when he saw us. It was only later when I was told “as lions are social animals, we never put them in an enclosure by themselves” that the cracks were beginning to show.
On my first evening after dinner I wanted to make the most of my time and go and see the cubs that I had fallen in love with. As I wasn’t briefed on what to do, I asked one of the experienced volunteers who told me it was fine to get them out but warned me that the sun was going down so to bear that in mind as they can be pretty difficult to put away. With that said, I went to see them. They were kept in a crate, no different to what you’d keep your new puppy in. (See photo below, the crate can be seen in the background). The only difference was that these aren’t puppies. There were five cubs weighing 8-10kg and each the size of a small staffy dog. Even then on our first night I questioned the ethics of keeping five animals this size in a cage overnight for what was sometimes up to 16 hours. My suspicions proved right when after only an hour of being locked up they were more than eager to run out and were perfectly synchronised in urinating. Considering this bunch of cubs were known for being pretty feisty, they didn’t seem to bat an eyelid at me and were much more interested in lapping up lots of water. It felt very uncomfortable trying to put them back in the cage and I walked away feeling incredibly guilty.
Other volunteers had noticed the size of the cage in relation to the cubs and thought it wasn’t right. When it was drawn to the owners attention they left it three more days before doing anything about it.
When shown to my room, I noticed there was a small enclosure with two animals pacing up and down. No-one had ever mentioned this the entire time I was at Ukutula and the state of their cage was enough to indicate that. These were two caracals who always seemed excited to see me when I walked past, coming up to the fence for attention. Their cage was always a complete mess and for the two weeks I was there I only saw it being cleaned twice. (see photo). Slightly different when compared to the hand reared caracal in a huge enclosure on her own, which I saw on our tour, for all the guests to see.
When on cub duty days, I had to help the guides to make sure the guests got perfect “lion selfies”. This involved dragging the lions by their feet and literally lifting them into people’s laps. It would take several attempts to find a lion that would tolerate this, luckily for them, the enclosure had plenty to choose from.
During just a short two week stay I became aware of many baby animals at Ukutula, some of which were all kept on the low-down. The first of these was a hyena cub named Hurley which was being hand reared by the park owners. I’m still not sure why it was being hand reared, as it was not part of the cub petting that guests were allowed to take part in, and I only saw it once during our stay. Another situation that people were widely aware of but never spoke of, was the fact that two tiger cubs had been born. No-one mentioned this unless being asked about it and I was told I could go and see it before leaving. I didn’t get the chance. I’m still not sure why they were breeding tiger cubs and as I was treated like I wasn’t supposed to know.
This wasn’t the only occasion where the existence of animals was kept in secrecy either. The arrival of the two cubs, Squeaky and Lola, was all very strange. I sitting by the bar completely unaware of the fact two new cubs had even arrived. After wondering where everyone was, I eventually noticed someone walking into pitch black to the mutter of voices. I went to see only to find everyone huddled around two absolutely tiny adorable cubs. Not only was it particularly annoying that no-one had mentioned the arrival to us, but it also seemed odd that the cubs would be staying in a volunteer’s room. As these cubs came literally out of nowhere, I became interested in where they did in fact come from. I had been told by a volunteer that they were ‘on loan’ from another park and that they would be returned due to the fact they weren’t white lions. Although I can’t confirm this as being the truth, I asked staff members on many occasions if this was the case and the question was avoided every single time. The arrival of these cubs was predominantly strange as I was told in my introduction that they would be reducing the amount of cub petting. Since I left Ukutula on 16th February 2015, at least 10 cubs have appeared at the park and two tiger cubs have been taken from their mother to be hand reared so, clearly, they do not intend to cut down cub petting anytime soon.
On the nights that these ‘3 week old’ cubs weren’t staying in volunteers’ rooms, they would be locked in the Reception until morning. I only became aware of this when having to get my key from reception after returning late from a trip. Sparkly (Managing Director) spent half an hour trying to get hold of someone to open reception so I could get my key. When Willi finally came to open it, I saw the crate of cubs in the doorway. Much like the older cubs, these cubs also slept in a crate similar to that of a puppy, although they had to deal with the hazard of sharp wires…
A couple of days after these cubs arrived they were joined by a third cub, Kinvara, which was born at Ukutula on the 28th January. This meant that she was only 18 days old when she was bombarded with groups of school children and tourists passing her around. She was the final cub that was bred using Felix and he passed away shortly before we arrived. I was told the lions were on some sort of contraception, hence the supposed decrease in cub petting, which made this addition to the cubs pretty questionable. I was also told, by Willi himself, that the exact same day this cub was taken from its mother, a male lion was put in the enclosure.
One of my biggest concerns for these cubs was that volunteers had told me they weren’t going to be fed for two days, so that they would be hungry enough to take to a bottle. There’d be times when the cubs would be so hungry they’d suckle our fingers, and still wouldn’t be fed for a further couple of hours. I’m not sure if these rumours are true or more to the point, why these cubs are even taken from their mothers so young. Surely the fact they’re resisting the bottle should be some indication that its not normal?
Aside from these cubs, there were numerous other animal encounters which made me increasingly concerned for the welfare of the animals at Ukutula. I once walked into The Devils’ enclosure to find one of the smaller lions caught in a wire from the electric fence. The young lion had got it’s paw caught and as the wire was attached to the gate, everytime it opened, it tightened around it’s paw. I mentioned this to a female Ranger at around 9am and by time we passed the enclosure (with Gill) over an hour later, nothing had yet been done about the situation. During one of my cub days I was in ‘The Devils’ enclosure when a guest was jumped on by one of the larger Devils, grabbing her hair. Unsurprisingly, she was pretty shaken up and asked me whether anyone had ever been attacked at Ukutula. I had been told to say ‘no’ and genuinely thought this was the case until stumbling upon multiple articles online that say differently. It also seemed strange to me that everytime we passed the tiger enclosure, they would be pacing back and forth, exactly like tigers kept in zoos do. There was also a Ranger Day when we spent all day trying to find nyalas to dart. I didn’t really receive a clear answer when questioning why this was necessary.
A huge attraction that the park prides itself on is the opportunity to walk with the older lions. They have groups of guests going out every day to go on structured walks with the lions who are too big for petting. You’re given sticks to usher the lions away if they come too close and are warned not to bend down or single yourself out. After all, let’s not forget these are ‘wild’ animals and they’re still born with innate instinct. The lion walkers train the lions to climb up trees and sit on podiums all for a piece of chicken on the end of a stick, not unlike a sight you would expect to see in a circus.
Please read my Cub Petting page to get information on the cub petting industry.