When housecats are rescued, they go to local animal shelters who work to find them a loving, human household. When big cats such as lions and tigers are rescued, their path to a new home is markedly wilder.
One rescue center near Amsterdam, called the Lion Center, is helping cats like lions and tigers return to the wild by helping them practice hunting, one of their most instinctual behaviors.
Since 2015, the center has been using a system of pulleys to maneuver meat through the lion’s large enclosure. Video taken inside the center shows a chuck of meat being dangled in front of a lion. As the lion lunges as it, a pulley yanks the meat away and moves it across the enclosure, forcing the lion to dart after it.
Unbeknownst to the lion, a member of the lion center sits just behind the enclosure with a joystick that controls the feeding system. According to the Lion Center’s website, the system took three years to develop. A number of requirements were considered when building it—for instance, the operator needed to be able to adjust speed, height, and duration of the hunting session at random intervals.
“Most cats are very clever. As soon as they notice that their prey runs the same round every time, they will stop chasing and just wait for it to pass by,” the center wrote on their website.
About 20 large cats including lions, tigers, panthers, cougars, and lynx have found refuge at the center.
For some of the cats, this is their first time chasing prey instead of being fed. The center rescues lions mistreated by private owners seeking trophy pets or from circuses that can no longer afford to feed a large cat that can consume over 20 pounds of meat per day.
The Cats’ Future
The cats that end up at the center will likely never be able to return to the wild. Instead, they are sent to enclosed natural reserves in South Africa or Thailand.
Helping a captive big cat return to the wild is about more than helping them become accustomed to hunting, said Kathleen Alexander, a professor Virginia Tech who has worked with captive carnivores. Hunting, she says, is highly instinctual behavior in animals such as lions and tigers that doesn’t need to be taught. She compared it to the reaction that a domestic cat would have to seeing a string being dangled across the room.
“They get bored,” said Alexander. Boredom in captive animals can seriously impact their quality of life.
“They begin pacing up and down and develop what’s known as ‘superstitious’ behavior. Even in large enclosures, they don’t have the same stimulus they would in the wild,” she explained.
In the wild, procuring food requires a large portion of a cat’s time, but in captivity, they become listless when they expect food to simply be thrown into their enclosure. In addition to alleviating the cats’ boredom, the center claims the hunting simulator improves the cats physical and mental health.
While helping the animals hunt stimulates some of their lost wild behaviors, it takes more than hunting instincts to reenter the wild.
To successfully thrive in the wild, lions “need their group to survive,” said Alexander. “They don’t know how to deal with other predators or to avoid people, and if animals are accustomed to people, they’re often very dangerous.”
Animals like tigers, however, tend to be more isolated only seeking out other tigers for breeding. Under the right conditions, Alexander claimed, it’s possible a tiger could be reintroduced to the wild.
The big cats at the center may never truly return to the wild, but the center hopes that through slowly reintroducing their wild instincts, they can get as close to the wild as possible.