25 July 2022

VISITING OUR RESCUED BIG CATS

Born Free’s Rescue & Care Officer Flo Blackbourn recently had the opportunity to visit our sanctuaries at Shamwari, South Africa, home to rescued lions and leopards.

A photo of a black leopard walking in the bush

At Born Free, we are fortunate to have projects and team members in several countries, but this means those of us living in the UK aren’t on the ground with our international projects, day to day. Therefore, I was ecstatic to be given the chance to spend over a week in South Africa at our big cat sanctuaries this June. 

My visit was part of a current project to further our sanctuaries’ great and trusted reputation through official accreditation with the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, and to highlight the difference between a true sanctuary and a zoo. Many so-called sanctuaries including within Africa are actually guises for money-making enterprises and some even linked to canned hunting. We will report on this project further in the future.

As Rescue & Care Officer for Born Free, I do a lot of work with our sanctuaries, but seeing these two centres in person was of course a whole new experience. Situated in the natural bush of South Africa, in a huge nature reserve, the two centres house rescued lions and leopards with various backgrounds. The sites are tranquil and the enclosures natural, offering these cats the sort of habitat they would have in the wild.

I had the privilege of seeing many of these cats who I have spent much time reading about over the months. Personalities I have read about from their carers presented themselves in front of me as I saw how unique each one of them was. 

I even got the opportunity to briefly see leopard Mowgli, an extremely shy melanistic leopard who was rescued after a dreadful start to life in a zoo in South Africa itself only two years ago. Knowing that he must still be haunted from his past life was very sad, but he recently started to vocalise in the mornings which is a promising sign that he is becoming more comfortable.


"I had the privilege of seeing many of these cats who I have spent much time reading about over the months. Personalities I have read about from their carers presented themselves in front of me as I saw how unique each one of them was."

Two of the easiest lions to see were King and his companion Thea – rescued separately from the illegal pet trade in France – because both were so relaxed and unbothered by seemingly anything. Both relaxing on their climbing frame, they seemed so chilled out and content with each other. 

The Born Free team members were all so dedicated and truly caring of the cats who seem, understandably, to be their pride and joy... and with such healthy, seemingly happy cats it is no wonder. The team educates visitors about where these cats came from and why the wild is where all wild animals belong. They won’t allow a visitor to leave with the impression that they have just visited anything like a zoo, with viewing platforms allowing only a potential sighting of a cat, and the important explanation always given that the cats’ wish to remain hidden is more important than anyone’s desire to see them. 

As well as the cats at the centres, I got the chance to see the wild animals on the reserve, including cheetah, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, warthogs, many antelope species and a whole rainbow of birds. You really do appreciate just how unnatural and oppressive zoos are when you see each animal where they are meant to be, interacting with their families and other species; one individual of one species in one whole ecosystem. A zoo – even the best of zoos – can never compare.

This year marks 25 years since our first big cat sanctuary at Shamwari, the Julie Ward Centre, first opened its doors to its first lions, Raffi and Anthea, rescued from a tiny cage at a rooftop bar in Tenerife.

If you want to support Born Free’s big cat sanctuaries then you can donate, adopt King the lion or the Leopard Family, and share the word with friends and family. It is also so important to educate those around you, and ask that they never visit a zoo, circus that uses animals, or any other similar outdated ‘attraction’.

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