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Hand Rearing Lion Cubs and Other Carnivores

Peter is an independent international zoo consultant, critic and writer with over 50 years of work within zoos.

There they are, the cute fluffy little lion, tiger or whatever cubs in the newspaper photo. That should bring some visitors in to the zoo, sanctuary, rescue centre or whatever you like to call it. We have all seen them. Such photographs appear frequently enough and are rarely questioned.

If they are there in the photograph with their mother as nature intended then fair enough. If not then the accompanying text usually goes something like this.

"They had to be hand reared because............."

...they were abandoned

...they were her first litter

...she did not know what to do

...rejected by their mother soon after birth

and this (written on Monday...born just a day previously!!!) - 'The cubs were born on Sunday and weighed 1.1 Kg at birth')

'Three of the cubs were stillborn...the fourth removed immediately for hand rearing.'

No they did not! These are just the excuses used by practically everyone who goes into the hand rearing of such animals. I say practically because there is that group of zoos who deliberately hand rear cubs especially for the camera shots and to allow visitors the opportunity to feed baby lions or tigers. They breed these animals especially for this purpose. They may pretend conservation or bandy around phrases like 'breeding programme' but really they have not got a clue. A big question mark hangs over the fate of such cubs once they pass the 'cutie pie' stage.

What happens to them? Where do they go? died....we buried it....we cremated it.....Did it really? Did they really? I think not.

Such Cub Factories will argue the necessity of hand rearing for conservations sake. It is all a massive lie.

Another group of people deliberately hand rear so that they can interact with mature and humanised animals and play 'Tarzan' and show off. Such animals have sometimes been mutilated by declawing for the protection during the totally unnecessary interaction.

At The Tiger Temple

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Photo by:

Cubbing - The facts

I won't argue with the fact that it IS necessary to handrear sometimes.. but in the world of the zoo professional  'mother knows best' is the best possible road to take.

In a good zoo the professional zoo keeper will have noted the animals mating. With big cats it is a difficult thing to miss. They don't make a secret of it, it is hardly a quiet affair and they mate with a frequency that seems scarcely credible. Forty or fifty times a day for as long as a week is not unusual.

If the female does not cycle again and starts to put on a little weight then these are very good indicators that she may be pregnant. The gestation period is well known and with both Lions and Tigers is very similar. The cubbing requirements of a big cat are no different to that of a domestic cat. They want somewhere dark, dry and comfortable. Above all they want to be left alone and undisturbed.

The cubbing den should be set up at least two weeks before the earliest possible parturition date. Instructions should be issued that no-one other than the routine keeper should approach that area and even they should keep visits to the basic minimum. Entering the cubbing den itself should not actually happen. Food and water should be placed elsewhere so the Dam can go to this herself. The only way anyone should know what is happening in that den is if an infra red camera has been set up.

Cleaning must be forgotten. Don't worry about the smell of ammonia or rotting uneaten meat. It may be distasteful to humans but your average big cat does not care. Her most important, critical requirement is not being disturbed. Peace and quiet. 

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Not a natural colour

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Photo by:

A good zoo keeper will know when the cubs have been born because of physical and behavioural changes of the Dam. Perhaps he/or she will have heard the cubs but at this early stage (unless there is a camera) no-one will have seen the cubs.

If there is a professional set up and protocols in place there is no way on earth that anyone will know how many cubs were born, whether they were stillborn, whether they were abandoned, whether she did not know what to do, whether they were rejected and certainly no-one would have a clue about birth weight.

In fact abandonment and rejection and these other problems are caused by those over keen members of staff who see the need to check. They cause it! They are the reason for rejection and abandonment. Let the mother get on with things. Leave her alone. A month after the birth should be the minimum period before there is a cub check. This is routine professionalism.

A more natural arrangement

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Photo by:

Cub Factories

There are many of course. Hopefully now you have read this you will think a little differently when you see hand reared cubs on whatever or wherever.

The biggest Cub Factories in Thailand are:

Phuket Zoo

Sri Racha Tiger Zoo

Million Years Stone Park

These are all very bad collections. All are very popular with tourists however and get no criticism from authorities. They get away with trade and more without rebuke.


I have been in the zoo business a long time. I have done my share of necessary hand rearing. Along the way I have become certain that mother rearing is definitely best. 


Jayne1973 on June 16, 2014:

This is an interesting thread. I was sitting down to watch a cutsie programme on the television about Sumatran lion cubs being hand reared, having been removed from their mother, Caitlyn, at Australia zoo. At this point we switched channels, and I came to research the ethics behind this practice. I agree with Peter and it does not sit comfortably with me. The mother was being a great first time mum, entrusted the zoo staff to be close by during birth, only to be cruelly cheated by those same people who thought it best to remove the cubs after a few weeks, whilst she was taken on a lead walk. Similarly, my husband and I are holidaying in Mauritius soon and we're told about an establishment where you can walk with lions and cuddle them. We will not be visiting. A beautiful wild animal, allowing strangers to walk and cuddle them, must have had their will beaten out of them. And what is the point of 'saving a species' if it is destined for a life in captivity so indulgent humans get to take selfies of themselves with the big cats. Money should be spent on saving their natural habitats, not finding ways of keeping them alive in captivity, to simply keep the numbers going. Not right.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on November 22, 2013:

Thanks sarvet,

Golden Tabby is rare but not as rare as it should be. Today these tigers are bred for colour rather than for genetic strength. Do we even know the subspecies of these animals? If they are not registered in an official studbook then I am against them. Lets stop domestication of tigers.

Not sure you are a 100% on Tiger Temple declawing but true enough most are not now. Just the cubs are pulled from their dams repeatedly for hand rearing. These animals are abused all the way along the line purely for financial profit. Animals sold out of the back door by corrupt 'monks' in cahoots with big business.

I do not find the actions of Dreamworld and Australia Zoo acceptable with regards to their tiger policy....and I know that this feeling is shared with zoo professionals all over Australia and elsewhere in the world. I do know from personal correspondence that their rearing is first rate however. As to Thailand....sadly, I am not assuming...though there will be a few collections which are exceptions.

I have other articles on the above subjects if you trawl through my hubs.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on November 19, 2011:

@jonescindy83. Thank you. Sadly it continues. Difficult to follow who is doing what and breeding how much. Submission of data is essential. I feel that even in the zoos which think they are doing the right thing that animals are disappearing out the back door to heaven knows where. Only it won't be heaven.

jonescindy83 on November 19, 2011:

Good work Peter, I have seen a lot of unnecessary hand raising, and in respect to the well known zoos in Australia hand raising for encounters, I have seen the outcome of older tigers who are mentally very messed up due to very poor hand raising. Totally unneccessary.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on January 14, 2011:

KillerRabbit - It is all a business to some people. They just don't give a damn. Thanks for reading.

KillerRabbit on January 14, 2011:

I had just posted my first hub on a similar subject, and then saw yours. I had recently only found out about how bad it is for lion cubs to be hand reared, because in many places in South Africa hand reared lion cubs are sold to game farms where canned lion hunting takes place. I was so shocked when I found out. People play with these cubs thinking that they are cared for, it’s so sad that it’s the complete opposite.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on November 10, 2010:

jayygeebee - Thank you for your comments. I very strongly believe that hand rearing should be avoided at all costs. If the accomodation is proper and management practices sound then it would be a very rare event. To deliberately pull cubs for hand rearing I feel is not only wrong but criminal. But then, yes, it is just my point of view....but shared by a great many zoo professionals.

jayygeebee on November 10, 2010:

i have to agree with jmac80 only in regards that you should not be damning all programs that hand-rear tiger cubs.

i agree with you 100% about how places in Asia are giving people the wrong idea about tigers. I also agree that dreamworld should take a step back and reconsider how they go about exposing the cats to the public.

I agree with everything you said about the "Cub Factories" in Asia. I am appalled at how they market these cats. You seem to have all the right answers on that matter.

Though in our day and age i believe hand raising or at least co-raising cubs with their mothers would absolutely increase the quality of life in captivity.

when i was younger i was against all zoos in general because i did not understand why anyone would make animals live in an artificial habitat. but now i see that without (responsible) zoos, most of these animals would be completely extinct.

By trying to save the population of these wild cats in captivity, along with in the wild, my hope is that someday when the wild population is stable and flourishing, we can start to reintroduce new generations of captive tigers to cousins in wildlife refuge parks, and then to the wild.

The only way to do this though, is to continue to help captive tigers breed responsibly so that their descendants will have a chance to live free of cages and handlers in their natural habitat. I do believe that hand raising / co-raising these cubs responsibly and carefully with give them a life worth living in the end.

The only thing that really concerns me is that the public usually see's this as an OK to go and buy tiger cubs on the black market, or go to circus's where these poor cats are paraded around like pets.

Speaking about how these are in NO WAY safe or tamed, along with stressing that these cats are in immediate danger of extinction, is what handlers of these tigers should be teaching and preaching about when in the public's eye. NOT that they should come spend money at their zoo so that they can touch a tiger. If they must, do it for free and ask them to give a donation to give directly to the charity/organization that they are a part of.

claire on September 30, 2010:

omg i love hand rearing even thow its bad because mouther nose what's best for there cups.....

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on February 26, 2010:

jmac80 - Thank you. We both have very different points of view here. I am always willing to listen to another dide or angle and am prepared to change my mind if given a convincing argument. No doubt you are of a similar frame of mind. Here though my thoughts have not changed one iota so we will as we have both stated have to agree to disagree.

jmac80 on February 26, 2010:

We obviously will have to agree to disagree. Maybe places like Dreamworld and Australia should be held up as an example of how to do it correctly and how hand reared animals can be effectively utilized for conservation benefit.

Let us face the fact that captive tigers will not be released back into the wild and provide the best captive care possible and raise the most funds possible for in situ efforts.

South lakes does a fine job raising funds for conservation and should be applauded for their efforts as should the Australian parks efforts.

Dreamworld and Australia Zoo certainly do not support tiger farming in any form. Both parks follow recommendations for the Sumatran program animals.

You are right that conservation needs cooperation. These parks fully cooperate with other institutions.

While I think mothers typically do an excellent job of cub rearing, it can be done quite effectively and with lower mortality by humans. Still providing the captive animals with a more stimulating life in captivity should be a focus.

Thanks for your comments.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on February 26, 2010:

jmac80 -

I understand where you are coming from but reckon that we will have to agree to disagree. I honestly feel that the best action that Dreamworld and Australia Zoo (who I am sure hand rear their cats properly and professionally) could take for tigers everywhere is to cease such animal


Whereas I do not dispute that there could be an ambassadorial role in such a closeness but very sadly it sends out a message to all the other much less caring establishments around the world that it is okay. It isn't.

How on earth are we going to stop the likes of Sri Racha Tiger Zoo and its evil cousins if all they are going to do is point a finger at Dreamworld and Australia Zoo? These collections really need to think about this.

Many zoos manage quite nicely to get the message across

without having to 'Tiger Touch'. To name just one, the South Lakes Wild Animal Park raises thousands every year for Sumatran Tigers in the wild, and has done for years, simply by giving 'Tiger Talks'.

As to the rearing of cubs. I don't believe we are in such a position today to need to breed tigers by pulling and hand rearing. Sadly this is just what is happening in so many places. In established 'good zoos' no breeding should take place unless requested to do so by the species coordinator. It should not be an invidual zoo choice. Conservation needs cooperation.

There are presently just too many captive tigers, perhaps as many as five or six times more in captivity than there are in the wild. What is sadder still that so many of these animals are worthless to conservation. Indiscriminate breeding (especially for hand raising) of non studbook tigers, ie whites and hybrids will inevitably promote tiger


Besides I do believe mother knows best. Give a female tiger the proper facilities and she will rear her own. It is natural, it is good for both the dam and the cubs both mentally and physically. I really don't think that we should be looking for excuses for hand rearing.

I admit that there is a place for it in exceptional circumstances but none of these, in my eyes, would include a touchy feely ambassador role.

A public announcement by Dreamworld and Australia Zoo that they were stopping Tiger Encounters outlining why they were stopping it would send out a message to the whole world and hopefully stop it in some of the less caring zoos and ultimately all of them. It would be a start anyway and when done in the year of the tiger would only be a plus.

You might want to take a look at:

and this

Thank you for your comments they are appreciated.

jmac80 on February 25, 2010:

I must respectfully disagree with some of the article. I do agree that there are some terrible "cub factories" in parts of Asia. There are parks and zoos that do hand rear cubs and do it well. In Australia there is Dreamworld and Australia Zoo that use their tiger collections to the benefit of in situ conservation at many times the level of any other facilities in the region or the world. This is only possible through programs that involve hand reared tigers.

As far as the animals themselves: Mortality is lower in hand reared animals, they are more easily managed in a captive environment as they are used to human carers, generally easier to adapt to new situations, and breed just as well or better than mother reared animals.

The animals themselves also have lives that are typically more stimulated because of the ability to work closely with them.

There is not any justification to declaw cats in hand reared situations, but rather condition them to not use claws and bite. This can be professionally done, just not by places like the ones in Thailand and New Zealand.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on October 27, 2009:

Thank you Jerilee and dohn121

dohn121 from Hudson Valley, New York on October 26, 2009:

I loved your photos as always Peter. This is just another example of how Tigers, other big cats, and other animals are maltreated. Thanks as always.

Jerilee Wei from United States on October 26, 2009:

Very thought provoking hub.

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