Step Away From the Lion

Romping with wildlife does not actually help protect it.

Lions aren’t pets.

Anup Shah/Thinkstock

It’s not easy to play soccer with a full-grown lion, but Kevin Richardson manages. “The Lion Whisperer,” as his quarter-million YouTube subscribers know him, is also comfortable hugging, wrestling, and scratching the large cats, as his videos can attest. In these clips, Richardson, a ruggedly handsome South African who runs a private wildlife preserve, seems to hold sway over the fearsome beasts: They walk beside him like faithful dogs and yawn in his lap to expose huge yellow fangs.

Such imagery is mesmerizing and, for his viewers, inspiring; he is regularly deluged with messages from fans who want to do what he does. But like many other wildlife “whisperers” who have gained popularity in recent years, Richardson is neither a wildlife biologist nor a conservation scientist. And although he purports to raise awareness for the endangered creatures he loves, many experts believe his approach—which portrays formidable predators as tractable companions—may actually end up being more harmful than helpful to the species.

Richardson’s footage is seductive. It taps, after all, into one of our culture’s most enduring collective fantasies: the power of communion with other animals. Our literature has long primed us with fictional examples of interspecies friendship. Just as kids today keep imaginary company with Iorek Byrnison, the imposing ice bear from The Golden Compass, and my generation longed to prowl with The Jungle Book’s Bagheera, so our parents daydreamed of flying alongside Merlyn’s fierce owl, Archimedes.

But while our yearning for connection with animals is deep-rooted and timeless, our guides to the real natural world have shifted over the years. A few decades ago, most of the public got its understanding of wild species from scientists, who treated their subjects with sensible caution. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, the most-watched nature programs of the 1970s and 1980s featured social anthropologists such as David Attenborough, zoologists such as Marlin Perkins, and visionary inventors and explorers such as Jacques Cousteau. Primatologist Jane Goodall’s televised physical interactions with wild Tanzanian chimpanzees likely made the strongest impression of all—though in the early days of her five-decade-long study of chimps (which has been invaluable to our understanding of primates), even she employed research tactics that would be frowned upon today, such as luring the apes with food. (Goodall herself now expresses regret about using this technique.)

These days, though, most of us get most of our information—about wildlife and everything else—online. It’s the favored medium of whisperers: self-taught behaviorists who lack academic credentials but who claim to have a special, intuitive understanding of animals from years of working or living around them. While the most famous whisperers, domestic-pet gurus Cesar Millan and Jackson Galaxy, have their own TV shows, dozens more abound in the digisphere. Most become known when their intimate encounters with apex predators—such as wolves, brown bears, and tiger sharks—go viral.

These videos make for killer clickbait. But increasingly, scientists and conservationists warn that such visuals promote unhealthy, and even dangerous, ideas about how we should treat wild animals.

One of the hallmarks of whisperers is their purported emphasis on conservation. Many describe their “real work” as promoting awareness of, and protection for, the threatened species they love. Some manifest their devotion literally; Richardson, for instance, runs a private 3,200-acre wildlife sanctuary that’s home to 32 rescued lions. But although his website rails against the businesses of both “canned” hunting (where trophy hunters purchase the rights to kill captive adult cats) and “cub petting” (where tourists pay to cuddle captive young lions), it also illustrates these sentiments, apparently unironically, with photos of Richardson … petting lions. 

When questioned about this, Richardson denied any hypocrisy. “There are always going to be a few people in the world who will observe what others do and think they can do the same,” he said. But the majority, he said, are intelligent enough to realize the difference. “When I watch a video of pilot doing aerobatics in a plane, I may for a second dream I was him/her,” he continued, “but then very quickly I understand the process and what it takes to get to that level of professionalism. There’s nothing wrong with watching a video and being inspired to do or be better.”

But according to Leigh Henry, senior policy adviser of species conservation and advocacy at the World Wildlife Fund, such imagery can in fact be hugely detrimental to actual conservation efforts.

“There is evidence that these types of videos and photos perpetuate a belief that the animals are not threatened and endangered,” said Henry. She cited several studies, including a 2015 evaluation of the impact of “unprotected public contact” with monkeys that found that viewers who saw primates being touched and handled by humans were significantly more likely to consider the animals as desirable pets. In response to such findings, she said, the WWF, along with the Humane Society of the United States and a half-dozen other animal welfare organizations, submitted a 72-page detailed petition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture calling for a complete ban of human physical contact with animals at American sanctuaries, zoos, and exhibitions. The “epidemic of unqualified individuals and facilities possessing dangerous wild animals,” the petition reads, “threatens both public safety and animal welfare.” (The matter is still being considered by the USDA.)

If whisperer fans can be misguided into imagining fierce, wild creatures would be fun to raise at home, they might also be inclined to seek out animal-snuggling experiences of their own—like the exploitative elephant rides and dolphin swims that TripAdvisor banned from its vacation-planning site earlier this year. A better idea is to follow the wildlife-viewing guidelines of the National Park Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that essentially entail leaving animals alone. Or consult the Adventure Travel Trade Association or Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries to find an ecologically responsible tour operator or wildlife preserve—none of which allow any physical contact with animals.

Some experts believe that along with fueling unethical animal-encounter enterprises, whisperer videos may also corrupt our behavior toward animals that are still in the wild.

“I think it can be very misleading, even damaging—this illusion of reciprocal affection between humans and wild animals,” said Frans de Waal, a primatologist and ethologist whose latest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, studies various aspects of animal intelligence. While animals raised in captivity can certainly be receptive to their caretakers, de Waal said, people who mistakenly try to pursue these sorts of relationships in the wild are more likely to find themselves in what he calls “a suicide pact”—putting both themselves and the animals at serious risk.

The best-known modern example of this animal fascination gone awry may be Werner Herzog’s documentary film Grizzly Man, whose layman protagonist attempts to live among bears, only to end up devoured by them. (There was also the earlier case of “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, who died after getting too cozy with a sting ray.)

But there are plenty of other, more recent stories of people misguidedly attempting to get friendly with wild animals, with disastrous results.

Consider the spike in reports of U.S. national park visitors approaching, and touching, resident wild animals (remember the bison that looked cold?). Or of overseas “selfie seekers” storming a baby dolphin, an endangered sea turtle, and an elephant. There’s no direct evidence that these people were actively following the example of animal whisperers, but a steady diet of animal-cuddling imagery could certainly have impaired their judgment. And the consequences are often dire: In nearly all these reported cases, the humans or wildlife involved were injured or killed.

Sadly, these problems have the potential to get worse, as our lives become more detached from those of wild animals, and it becomes easier to fetishize contact with them.

“We’re more disconnected from animals now than at any other time in human history,” said Margo DeMello, program director for human-animal study at the Animals and Society Institute (a consortium of scholars who research how we engage with other species). “But we also seem to feel an especially strong need to have them in our lives.” Since the Industrial Revolution, DeMello said, when people first began to gravitate toward urban centers and away from the land (where brushes with wildlife instilled a healthy sense of fear), we’ve increasingly replaced wild animal confrontations with substitutes such as owning pets and, now, watching videos like the whisperers’. Both can give us a false sense of animal encounters as benign.

The truth is that the best way for ordinary people to engage with wild creatures, especially those under increasing threat, is not to engage with them at all. And to recognize the essential duplicity of animal whisperers, who peddle the very illusions that they warn us against buying into. (For an insidious example, witness the video where Richardson discourages would-be whisperers from “getting some lions and interacting with them the way I do,” as he kisses and strolls alongside an apparently devoted lioness.)

We can always get our virtual fix from scientists and filmmakers who document the wonders of nature by relying on long lenses rather than problematic animal contact. Watching Planet Earth II, for example, which debuts on BBC America in late January, may well give us a more intimate look at wildlife than we’d ever be likely to have ourselves.

As for people who simply can’t dismiss the desire to embrace toothy, hairy beasts, de Waal offered some common-sense advice.

“I think they should pet their dogs,” he said.