Ben Houston: Red in tooth and claw, wild animals are not playthings

THERE are parks in South Africa and Namibia offering contact with animals. If I were in such a situation, I would be very cautious.

THERE are parks in South Africa and Namibia offering contact with animals. If I were in such a situation, I would be very cautious.

Any interaction with wild animals should be thought about very carefully. You can never tell how trained that animal is and how safe it is.

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It might be quite safe for someone that has worked with it all its life, but every animal is different and everything has its off-days. In this incident, it may have been playful behaviour, which seems like fun to an animal but to a human they are quite capable of doing serious harm.

I’ve seen the photos of this incident and I think Violet D’Mello was quite lucky.

Generally, there is a perception that cheetahs are safer because humans are a little big to be their natural prey. With lions and tigers it’s a different matter altogether.

However, you have a wild animal that is well armed, and all it takes is to tread on a tail or a paw or so something to set it off. You are never going to be able to train it like a dog.

Most cats retract their claws but cheetahs can’t, they use them almost like running spikes. In a more serious attack, most of the big cats would try to get a lock around the throat.

We have seven lions and two tigers at Blair Drummond Safari Park. People can drive through the lion enclosure. I work with the animals but I do not get out of my vehicle near them unless we have to tow a vehicle, and we have protocols for that.

We have “keeper for a day” programmes but you are never in the same space as the animals. You get to go into the lion and tiger house and see them on the other side of the cage, but none of us go in with the big cats unless the animals are properly tranquillised, and we only do that for a medical situation.

In the UK we have legislation – rules about what we are allowed to do. To me it makes common sense. We want people to have interaction, but in safety.

• Ben Houston is senior keeper at Blair Drummond Safari Park near Stirling