Because I am asked all the time about my profile picture, I thought I’d take some time today to tell you the story of how that photo came to exist.
This photo was taken in summer of 2009. At the time I worked and volunteered for an AZA-accredited institution, working in the education department and volunteering (through the city) to assist with animal care. I volunteered in the section that included large carnivores, and in 2009, four lion cubs were born; this is one of them. He was the largest of the cubs, which included three males and one female, and it took a whole group of us to get them through their weekly veterinary assessments, especially when they got big enough to run around the room.
These lion cubs are now 4 years old and at other institutions as part of the SSP– Species Survival Program. Many zoo animals are part of the program, which includes extensive genetic documentation and husbandry information, all for the sake of maintaining a genetically healthy and diverse captive population with the intention of one day returning these species to the wild. The goal is to have 95% diversity, which means any given individual can only be related to 5% of the total captive population. This is why big cat births like this are so rare: they are managed so as to not be over-populated in captivity, and to keep diversity high. A more genetically diverse population is better equipped to survive diseases and less likely to have birth defects.
Important things to know about this specific situation: it happened under very strict supervision, and was for an extremely brief period of time. The cubs were separated from their mom for less than 30 minutes while she ate. Once the cubs reached about 3 months old, contact like this ceased, in part because they were getting too big to handle and in part because they were simply done with their “kitten” vaccines. The purpose of handling them was not only to help the veterinary exams go more smoothly, but also to help the cubs feel comfortable around humans, since they will spend their entire lives in captivity. Socialization reduces stress.
And that brings me to another important point. While I do have this photo posted, I do not encourage people to seek out photo opportunities with big cats or other wildlife. Paying for photos with cubs creates a market for breeding and exploiting big cats, and the cubs are the ones who suffer being taken from their mothers far too early (remember at 3 months they were too big to handle, but still not weaned) and often don’t survive. Even lions “raised” by people maintain all of their wild instincts, and should be respected as wild animals. My situation was in the course of work I was doing and not as part of a profit-making scheme.
That being said, I wouldn’t trade the experience I had working with and around the cubs for anything, and it’s one I might never have again. They were adorable and amazing and really a joy to watch as they grew, especially knowing they were doing their part to save their species, not only by simply being alive but by being ambassadors. These cubs allowed people a chance to get a glimpse into the wild, and hopefully to care just a bit more about saving their relatives still out there.