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Why Keep Big Cats? by Tim Stoffel
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A Spiritual Look at our Relationship with Animals

Many people wonder why anyone in their right mind would want a lion (or a tiger, or a cougar, etc.) as a pet. After all, aren't the great cats hardwired, vicious killing machines? Isn't injury or death by these creatures an inevitable outcome of keeping them? Must they at all times be isolated from us by thick bars and strong fences? Arguably, the great cats are among the most powerful, beautiful and magnificent creatures that walk planet earth. Although it could be claimed that this alone is enough reason to justify owning one of these animals, there is actually a far deeper reason-- and a very surprising one to the uninitiated-- to have these animals close at hand.

This paper is an expansion on some ideas presented in a paper entitled 'Constitution and Happiness', written by John Williamson, John Burkitt and myself. This paper explores some of the ideas presented here, but looks at them in a much different light. This paper can be found at

Humans have a number of basic needs. Most of these we are familiar with: food, shelter, water, etc. But, there is one fundamental need that is often overlooked, as it is not often portrayed as a basic survival need. That is the need to connect to another living being in a spiritual way. The most relevant example of this is the bond between husband and wife in a good marriage. But, it goes far beyond that. One can have a deep relationship with a friend, but never have (or need) the physical part of that relationship that would come with marriage. A person can have a relationship to a higher being-- and many people do. In fact, the teachings of most religions will lead the believer from a rote following of rules to a functional, abiding relationship with this higher being. And this relationship is intangible by our physically based standards. Last, but not least, a person can have a bond with an animal or animals.

What is special about animals? Looked at from a purely religious standpoint, animals were created by a higher being and were put here for a number of purposes. One of these purposes was to form relationships with humans, to be, as it were, our close friends. Generally, the animals that draw people into relationships are the higher animals: horses, elephants, dogs, cats, lions, tigers, etc. However, this bonding can occur with lower animals as well. Someone I know recently had their pet snake die on them. Now, most of us don't think too highly of a snake, perhaps the lowliest of all the reptiles. But, this person was crushed by the loss of this snake, and it had a noticeable effect on them emotionally for some time. So, if this kind of bonding can happen with a snake, imagine what it must be like for a tiger? Indeed another friend of mine who recently lost a lion described the experience 'like losing a child'.

What is it we see in animals that causes deep relationships to form? A lot depends on your worldview. For me, it is in their spirit. It's hard to deny that animals have spirits. Indeed, the Christian bible talks about the spirits of animals, and how they form a part of the compartment in which we exist. But, what is the proof of this? In most cases, it is something deeply personal, and purely experiential. It is something we cannot measure or quantify, or systemize (especially from a legal standpoint).

Briefly, here's my experience that helps me draw this conclusion. Some years ago, a lion died. This lion was special to me, as he had an incredibly deep bond with his keeper. They were literally and figuratively, the best of friends. But, even lions die eventually, and this lion died a terrible, lingering death of cancer. I did not know this lion or his keeper personally. But I mourned for weeks over the loss of this lion and the special relationship he had with his keeper. One sleepless night during this time, while I laid in bed with this issue and a lot of other thoughts on my mind, God let me meet the spirit of this lion. It was a stunning, life-changing experience. I learned two really critical things from this experience: First, animals do indeed have functional spirits (but not to the degree we do) that do not die with their bodies, and animals are a channel of God's pure love.

Shortly after this happened, I finally got a copy of a book I had been waiting for (and contributed to in a small way), 'To Walk With Lions' by noted lion researcher Gareth Patterson. This book corroborated my experience with some similar experiences that Gareth and his friends had experienced. Also, about that time, a friend of mine was beginning to research this very topic. He, too, had such an experience, in this case with a dying bobcat. This experience motivated him to devote his life to the conservation of our wild cats. And, it has kept him focused on this goal through and good times and hard times.

If you go to any bookstore, you will see shelves lined with books on animal spirituality. Animals have both a profound and well-documented physical, as well as psycho-spiritual effect on most animal owners.

Armed with many independent validations of my experience, I began to understand what it is with animals, especially the higher animals that draw us into such deep bonds with them.

First of all, the basic need to connect exists in animals, as well as in humans. It apparently is an essential part of life.

Many scientists argue that animals are basically hardwired robots that are programmed to survive, and do little else. One article I remember reading said that the typical large animal has about as much computing horsepower in their brain as a '286 microprocessor (remember those?). These scientists reason that any behavior we see in animals, including those we 'confuse' with emotions, are nothing more than different manifestations of that will to survive.

However, don't tell this to an animal lover. They will clearly demonstrate to you, through experience that these theories of animal behavior are dead wrong. (how can you measure love and trust in a laboratory?) In fact, some scientists are just now waking up and beginning to realize this. One scientist, who has been researching human as well as animal interrelationships even has gone on record as saying that 14 of the 16 basic human emotions are also active in animals.

So, why big cats? Why not a dog instead of a leopard? Surely, a dog must be able to meet our needs to bond as well as a leopard, if this 'need to connect' is inherent in all animals?

How many of you out there are married? Or, looking for 'Mr./Mrs. right'? How many of you married the first person you dated, or met? How many of you selected a mate at random, or had someone do this for you? We, as humans can't just bond with any other human that happens to come our way. There is usually a long, drawn-out selection process before we commit to a relationship. The same goes with animals. Some people might (as illustrated earlier) be fulfilled by a relationship with a snake. For many a dog or cat or bird will do. (But not just any dog, cat or bird. Look how different many species of each we have.) For some it takes a horse. For others, a lion.

For the very reason that we aren't denied choice in whom we marry, we should not be denied that choice in whom we bond with from the animal kingdom. A person should have the freedom to bond with that animal that best fulfills them. In fact, such bonding should be encouraged and supported by our society, rather than being constantly questioned.

Now, back to the opening paragraph of this essay. What do we see in the big cats that attract us to them? Unfortunately, many are initially attracted because of their power, and reputation as killers. However, one quickly learns that a properly raised big cat is just the opposite. They can be unbelievably affectionate. They can sense your emotions, and provide all the wonderful qualities we see in a domestic cat, but in a really big way. And, when you spend enough time around them, you will begin to sense how incredibly spiritual these animals are (especially lions!).

Although you must never forget these are large predators that can kill effortlessly if provoked, people who have this degree of bonding with their cat rarely get hurt. (The statistics show the vast majority of cat-related injuries happen to those who have custodial care of these animals (zookeepers, hired help, etc.), as opposed to an abiding relationship.) Indeed, there are now four instances I know of where a lion has gone out of its way to save a human life. Tigers have two instances of human rescue to their credit that I am aware of. Many more cases of this kind of altruism undoubtedly exist.

This principle works from the cat's perspective, as well. They choose their favorite humans. And, they can become very jealous of their 'human'. For instance, at the zoo I volunteer at, three of the four lions have bonds with me. The big male has the deepest. Occasionally, I even get the chance to sleep near him, and he will stay by my side all night long. But, the fourth lion, and our two tigers don't have much to do with me. We also have a liger, which 'adopted' me. He wants me to be around him as much as possible, and gets noticeably upset when I leave. Other volunteers have a different, but similar experience. Some of the cats that aren't real social to me will fawn all over them, while some of 'my' cats all but ignore them. Every keeper has a different group of the same 7 cats that likes/ignores them.

So, what does this all boil down to? Love. The most cherished of all emotions, and the one that draws us into close relationships more than any other. As I see it, it's no mistake that a higher being has chosen to make animals an outlet of this all-important quality. After all, although animals can show emotion in a very deep way, they do not have all the 'baggage' us humans seem to carry around with us. Therefore, the love we see in animals is very pure. Unspoiled. It draws us to them.

It is said that many people come to work with animals because they have emotional problems. Among the animals, they can find strength and healing. And for some, it might take the love of a lion or a tiger to minister to that emotional need. It is a big love, a special love. Pretty soon, you find the cat is your 'best friend' and vice versa. It becomes immaterial that they are a super predator. (Although basic safety must always be practiced, as their protective instincts still function very well.) Such abiding relationships are truly spiritual in nature, as it is relationship that is the very basis of what we call religion. To deny this kind of a relationship to a person 'because they are inherently dangerous animals' is downright criminal. In fact, it is a direct violation of our right of free practice of religion.

I can tell you firsthand. There is nothing in all the world better than the love of a lion!

This paper, and a number of other interesting papers can also be found at There are also some interesting papers on my website at

Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 Since the spirit of man or animal is indestructible, I interpret this as meaning that the spirits of animals share the earth with us. I believe they will be redeemed with everything else at the final judgment. Romans 8:18-23

From the book 'Who Am I The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Actions and Define Our Personalities' by Steven Reiss, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Ohio State University.

Many thanks to Tim Stoffel for allowing the use of this article on in cooperation with the Feline Conservation Federation. This article is copyrighted 2005 by Tim Stoffel, and originally appeared in the FCF Newsletter. All rights are reserved. FCF members receive a bi-monthly newsletter containing a wealth of articles like this one, and I highly recommend becoming an FCF member to learn more about exotic felines.


Home | First Stop for Future Owners | Why Exotic Pets Should NOT be Banned | Species Profiles | Behavior and Training | Care | Veterinary Care | Vet Directory | Housing & Enrichment | Adoptions | Resources | Discussion Forum | Photos | Other Topics....
© Jessi Clark-White, 2005
Why Own Big Cats?