Written by Des & Elizke Gouws, founders of Running Wild Conservation.
Animal exploitation is a term that is used very loosely nowadays. Unfortunately if we must get technical about this statement, almost every animal is now been exploited for some or other reason.
Allow me to explain, for the survival of certain species animals need to be kept in captivity for breeding and releasing purposes, keep in mind that game reserves are also deemed to be a captive environment as fences prohibit these animals from moving on their natural migratory routes.
Unfortunately there are some horrific breeding businesses where animals are kept in insufficient size enclosures that are almost never cleaned, where animals are forced to walk among their own feces and carcass bones. These places irresponsibly breed for the sale of exotic pets, the lion bone industry and for the satisfaction of the daily tourists and volunteers taking selfies and petting for instance lion and tiger cubs.
Other places do exactly that with visitors, but tend to have larger and cleaner enclosures and taking good care of their animals and don’t supply the lion hunting or bone industry at all.
Furthermore there are the places that claim to have no interaction with any of their animals, but still allow a constant flow of visitors and volunteers to view the animals, bombarding them with flashing cameras and unnatural noises the whole day. Most of these animals are nocturnal and should sleep during the day without any disturbances. These places might not allow public interactions, but do allow volunteer interactions with most or some of the animals.
Some “hands off” places have very busy and upmarket lodges where their guests (sometimes up to 8 full game viewing vehicles at a time, 2-4 times daily) track these radio collared cheetahs, lions and leopards constantly during the day. Intrusive game drives with guides trying to approach animals as close as possible for their guest to get the best photographic opportunity. Vehicles emitting toxic gasses whilst stressing out the animals and forcing them to deviate from their intended route.
Then we have the so called true sanctuaries that do not allow any public visits, but run volunteer programs that accommodate thirty plus volunteers a day, who by the way, interact with the animals nonstop on a daily basis. A lucrative business where profit does not necessary finds its way to the animals.
Other well-known institutions might not allow any public visitors but exploit their animals by allowing B-grade movies and "educational" documentaries to be made using the animals as the “stars” of the film. These animals undergo extreme stress with flashing lights, cameras and GoPro’s and constant re-doing of scenes into the late hours of the night to make these films. These people are then praised for what they do for conservation, but in my opinion these films have no real conservation value at all. Posing with your lions, riding or sitting on them, swiming with them only stimulates the market where people want to participate in the same interactions, and this is why other bad facilities offer this type of interactions, because people that are considered “holy” created the niche market years ago.
So yes all the above mention does take part in animal exploitation, but let’s see this all in perspective.
A place that allows volunteers (not public) to interact with their animals in the sense of cleaning the enclosures, offer enrichment and feeding of animals that will eventually be released or animals that have no chance on being released but have a safe haven to spend their years in. Does this still constitute exploitation, I think not.
When the money generated by volunteer income is ploughed directly back into conservation, does this constitute exploitation, I think not.
The people out there that are so quick to shout exploitation should take a very careful look at the place they are pointing a finger to before commenting about animal exploitation. But if the business deserves to be labeled as an animal exploiter, then by all means scream it out to the world to see.
In short, the only place not exploiting animals for profit is a sanctuary, reserve or rehabilitation center that is totally closed for public (tourists and volunteers). And we all know this can only be done if the facility receive grants and huge donations to operate without and other income such as from the visiting public.
To end, the unfortunate fact remains that animal exploitation does exist in many different shapes and forms, and on the whole it is an unacceptable practice. But in some instances it is an unfortunate necessity to have human interaction with animals for the sole purpose of saving a species, and that is not animal exploitation but much needed contribution towards conservation and should receive more applause (and funds) than it often gets...