28 March 2020
A cheetah walks up to Shandor Larenty and lets him rub its back while he throws pieces of meat to other cheetahs.
Larenty is a third-generation animal trainer. He works at the Johannesburg Lion & Safari Park in South Africa.
At 25 years old, Larenty has been training cheetahs and other wild animals for the past 13 years.
Trainers like him wonder about the future of jobs like theirs in South Africa, where concerns over tourist-animal interactions have increased.
Last year, South Africa's tourism association approved measures criticizing the raising of wild animals in captivity for the entertainment of tourists.
The move answered a call from animal welfare activists who argue that this practice is wrong.
Keira Powers is chairperson of the association's Animal Interaction Committee.
"It is unnatural for these animals to be in close proximity to humans," Powers told the Reuters news agency. She described such interactions as "extremely stressful" for the animals.
Her group is calling on animal breeders to end all entertainment involving performing animals. It is also calling for an end of up-close interactions with big game, including activities such as riding on elephants.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists have interacted with elephants and other wild animals over the years.
Larenty said he would be very sad if he had to stop working with the animals.
"These guys are our family, we have a very strong emotional connection. You can see these guys want to be with me," he said.
"For someone to say, ‘hey, you can't do that anymore', that's like someone saying to you: ‘Hey, I'm taking your children away.' This is my life."
The tourism association's guidelines are not a requirement. South Africa's tourism office, while welcoming the guidelines, has no plans to ban animal interactions. These interactions remain a large part of South Africa's tourism industry.
Andre La Cock, who directs the lion park near Johannesburg, thinks the guidelines are wrong.
"Our lions lead very happy lives," he said.
Yet lion cubs are often removed from their mothers, causing stress to both.
"We do admit that if cubs are needed for cub interaction, we sometimes remove the cubs from their mothers. This is obviously stressful for the mother and we regret that it is necessary," La Cock said.
In 2016, he briefly stopped letting visitors hold lion cubs and walk with adult lions. But the number of tourists, who make up about a third of the park's earnings, dropped. La Cock changed his decision.
Fiona Miles is the country manager of Four Paws, a non-government group.
She said the space available in most enclosures is far too small to meet the animal's natural movements.
"Lions should not be used as props," Miles said. "There's no conservation value in breeding lions in captivity and there's definitely no educational value."
I'm John Russell.
Tim Cocks reported on this story for the Reuters news agency. John Russell adapted the report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
tourist – n. a person who travels or visits a place for pleasure
interaction – n. communication or direct involvement with something
entertainment – n. the action of providing a good time, enjoyment
proximity - n. the state of being near
stressful – adj. full of or increasing tension; making you feel worried
breeder – n. someone who raises animals for the purpose of them reproducing and having young
enclosure – n. an area that is surrounded by a wall or fence; an enclosed space
prop - n. an object that is used by a performer or actor or that is used to create a desired effect on a theater stage or in a movie