12 min read

Newborn Lions Are Being Stolen From Their Moms — And Handed Over To Hunters

These baby lions might look cute. But they're living a nightmare.

At just a few weeks old, these cubs are the smallest victims of South Africa's canned hunting industry, which intensively breeds lions to be used in cub-petting tourist attractions and, later, staged lion hunts.

Blood Lions

The torture starts at just a few days old, when the infant cubs are ripped away from their captive mothers.

"It's a huge torment to the mothers and the cubs, as you can imagine," Susan Bass, PR director for the Florida-based Big Cat Rescue, told The Dodo. She added that the method of separation is especially cruel.

"The people wait until the mother cat gets up to get some food or water and then close the door, like a guillotine door," she said. "And she's standing there watching her cubs being taken away, never to be seen again."

Both mother and babies will often spend days crying for each other. In the wild, cubs would spend up to two years with their mothers, who are fiercely protective parents. And this unnatural separation, carried out just so lion farm owners can make as much money as possible, can have tragic effects on the lives of both the cubs and the mother.

Blood Lions

For one, cubs should be nursing from their mothers for several months, and removing them at just a few days old can lead to life-threatening nutritional deficiencies. "That's not natural - they shouldn't be living off a diet," Bass said of the early weaning. "A lot of times they're fed the wrong food."

She explained that cubs who aren't fed properly will develop problems like bone issues, difficulty walking and damaged teeth.

"There are nutritional deficiencies that we can't near[ly correct] with over-the-counter supplements," Tammy Thies, executive director of the Wildcat Sanctuary, told The Dodo.

Blood Lions

Because lion farms care more about producing as many lions as possible than breeding healthy lions, they will also often inbreed lions, mating relatives or selecting for genetically weak traits like light coats.

Bass says that inbred white tigers often have crossed eyes, cleft palates, small kidneys and spine issues, and that inbred lions could have similar health problems.

These concerns seem to be proven in the upcoming documentary "Blood Lions," which examines the canned hunt industry. In one startling shot, a young cub can be seen hobbling along as he drags a useless back leg behind him.

Blood Lions

Of course, the effects are emotional as well.

"There are definitely psychological effects," Bass said. While neither Big Cat Sanctuary nor Wildcat Sanctuary allow breeding at their facilities, most of the animals Bass and Thies work with have been separated from their mothers too early.

"If the cubs are kept together, a lot of times their natural instinct is to suck," Bass added, explaining that the infants will mouth on each other as a coping mechanism since they can't find their mothers. She said that sometimes the infants will even end up sucking on each other's bottoms, since they don't know any better, and can get seriously ill.

The cubs will also try to suck on themselves, sometimes so obsessively that they can injure themselves. "They end up self-mutilating because they're self-soothing," Thies noted. Cubs separated from their mothers also have high stress rates, and can develop separation anxiety just like a domestic animal can.

Blood Lions

The physical and psychological effects of losing their mothers can follow these cubs throughout their lives. Bass said she recently saw a video of an adult tiger at a zoo sucking on his own paw - likely a self-soothing behavior that developed after being taken away from his own mother.

The cubs' mothers are hit just as badly by the intensive nature of the lion farms' breeding programs. In the wild, a mother would have a litter of cubs every two to three years and dedicate her life to fiercely protecting them; in captivity, she can have two to three litters every year and lose all her babies within a few days.

"That is overbreeding, and that is just using an animal like a machine, and that is just completely cruel," Thies said.

It's not uncommon for mothers to develop ovarian cysts or prolapses - or even reproductive cancers. "It shortens their lives," Bass said.

Blood Lions

Of course, just like their babies, the mothers experience emotional trauma from the loss of so many precious cubs.

"It's heartbreaking," Bass said. "It's a torment. It absolutely is not something that's natural...The mother lions have a terrible time with it."

While many facilities, including some U.S. zoos, will questionably separate newborn cubs from their mothers, canned hunting facilities stand out because of the horrible fate the cubs face afterwards.

After being taken from their mother, the cubs are handed over to volunteers, often untrained college students, who have been falsely promised that they're helping conservation efforts. The volunteers pay for the privilege of raising the cubs, essentially providing free labor for the canned hunt facilities.

Raised by the volunteers to be semi-tame, the cubs are peddled out to tourists for lion-petting experiences and photo sessions. Sometimes this takes place at the lion farms, which falsely market themselves to tourists as conservation groups; other times, they're rented out to hotels or stores to attract customers.

Blood Lions

Eventually, the cubs grow too big to be cute, so they're trained to participate in "lion walks," another tourist favorite. The lions and their handlers lead paying tourists on a short walk, then pose with them for pictures.

Throughout this, the young lions spend their time in small enclosures. As shown in "Blood Lions," these cages can go months without being cleaned, and the animals are often fed rotten meat.

They only get enough medical attention to keep them looking pretty so hunters will want them mounted; their mothers, who are only used as breeding lions and are rarely seen by tourists, get even less care.

Blood Lions

Finally, when the former cubs are big enough, the lions are ranked by attractiveness - in other words, who would look best on a wall - and priced accordingly. Hunters can then go onto the facility's website and select the lion they want from a lineup. Once they've paid, the chosen lion is led into a small enclosure.

Semi-tame and used to humans, the lions rarely try to hide. They're usually baited with food. The intrepid hunter can just aim, shoot and collect his brand new trophy.

Blood Lions

The entire canned hunting industry is centered on giving so-called hunters the thrill of killing an apex predator without actually having to do any of the work. A real lion hunt can take weeks with no guarantee of success; these staged hunts take a few hours and all but guarantee a kill.

But the real victims are the little orphaned cubs, who spent the entirety of their short lives making money for the people who will kill them.

"There is no reason to pull a lion from his mother except for their own selfish needs," Thies said.

To find out more, watch "Blood Lions." The views expressed here are The Dodo's and do not necessarily reflect those of MSNBC.