Tiger cubs should NOT be exploited by Animal Planet’s Dave Salmoni!
It’s happened yet again: a young tiger cub is being exploited and used as a television prop by Animal Planet’s co-called “big cat expert” Dave Salmoni. Just last week he brought a 2-month-old tiger cub named Olive on NBC’s Today Show as well as People Now, and perhaps other shows.
Dave Salmoni claims he is a conservationist. In reality he is a self-promoting big cat trainer from Ontario’s notoriously abusive Bowmanville Zoo, a private menagerie and breeding/training facility for performing exotic animals used in film, TV and circuses. The cubs Salmoni brings to television studios likely come from roadside zoos, unaccredited breeders or from Michael Hackenberger, Salmoni’s mentor and the disgraced owner of the Bowmanville Zoo, who was prosecuted for animal cruelty after investigators filmed him brutally whipping a young tiger 19 times during a single “training session.” “I like hitting him in the face,” Hackenberger says in the clip.
This is the type of person that represents Discovery Inc. and Animal Planet and is touting Project CAT, a project created by Discovery Inc. to promote Global Tiger Day? It’s sickeningly ironic that Salmoni is promoting awareness of endangered wild tigers by forcing a captive tiger cub to perform unnatural behaviors such as appearing on television shows and enduring bright lights and noise and petting by the hosts! And there is no tracking of what happens to these poor cubs after they are too big for him to exploit this way.
Salmoni claimed on the Today Show, as most breeders and exploiters of cubs do, that the mother tiger rejected Olive the cub. However, cubs used for petting and exhibition on television are usually snatched away from their mothers shortly after birth so they do not bond with their mothers and are more easily used as entertainment props.
By bringing self-proclaimed “experts” like Salmoni to cuddle endangered wildlife on-air, media outlets such as Discovery, Animal Planet, the Today Show and People Now are actually doing a great disservice to wildlife. Instead of fostering education, respect for animals, or concern for wild populations, viewers are left with the exact opposite message – that it’s okay to drag cubs around as television props.
So now we NEED YOUR HELP. Please speak up for little tiger cub Olive…we are her voice!
See Olive’s appearance on the Today Show:
Take Action Here: Letter to the Editor
2018 Investigative Report on Dave Salmoni
In my opinion, Dave Salmoni is not a conservationist, behaviorist, or “animal expert,” but a big cat trainer from Ontario’s notoriously abusive Bowmanville Zoo, a private menagerie and breeding/training facility for performing exotic animals used in film, TV, and circuses. The cubs Salmoni brings to TV studios appear to come from Michael Hackenberger, Salmoni’s mentor and the disgraced owner of the Bowmanville Zoo, who was prosecuted for animal cruelty after investigators filmed him brutally whipping a young tiger 19 times during a single “training session.” “I like hitting him in the face,” Hackenberger says in the clip. Just a few months after that video was released, another clip emerged showing Hackenberger speaking almost gleefully about beating his animals. “I can carve my initials in their side,” he brags of his skills at whipping tigers. Later, speaking about a group of wolves, he shows off the wooden stick he uses to beat them. “You smack ’em, and they generally fold like a house of cards. And that’s the beauty.” A Bowmanville Zoo administrator later acknowledges Hackenberger’s violent training methods, stating, “You throw them down on the ground so they know who’s boss. That’s basically Michael’s way of working all animals.”
In a 2009 interview, Dave Salmoni reverently refers to Hackenberger as “one of the best cat trainers in the world—he put me in situations to teach me how to fend off an attack; how to gag a lion with a wooden crook and stop them coming forward, or if they are on top of you, the little skin fold in their lip where you can put your finger, and stop them from biting you. Over the years now, I’ve probably had a few hundred fights with captive lions, or good play wrestling, where you practice that gag, or block their teeth and learn the techniques.”
Leading big cat conservationists affiliated with legitimate organizations like Panthera and the Wildlife Conservation Society warn that Salmoni’s sensationalized, entertainment-focused “education” is impeding genuine conservation efforts and sending the wrong message to viewers.By bringing self-proclaimed “experts” like Salmoni to cuddle endangered wildlife on-air, media outlets are actually doing a great disservice to wildlife. Instead of fostering education, respect for animals, or concern for wild populations, this is the message viewers are leaving with:
In 2009, Salmoni filmed a show called “Into The Pride,” which featured him deliberately harassing wild lions in a Namibian national park in an attempt to “tame” them. Salmoni somehow believed that habituating the lions to people would make them less likely to come into conflict with humans, and told an interviewer that “those lions are unfazed by human contact, and that’s the way it needs to be.” Legitimate lion conservationists, who know that habituating wildlife to people is not a good thing, were furious. Dr. Luke Hunter, Executive Director of Panthera (the most respected big cat conservation group in the world) wrote an article titled “Tormenting Lions for TV” where he chastised Salmoni for being a “self-absorbed ignoramus” and the program for being “self-indulgent baloney” and “made-for-TV nonsense [which] obscures the authentic and far more meaningful conservation efforts undertaken by thousands of passionate, anonymous professionals.”
Wildlife documentary producer Chris Palmer, the director of Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University, concurred; calling Into The Pride “an example of a bad wildlife film” and explaining that Salmoni’s harassment of the lions “makes great television, but lousy conservation. The lions are being gratuitously provoked for the sake of ratings and in the process becoming frightened and needlessly stressed.”
Salmoni seems to have also proven that he is equally ignorant about animal welfare. Remember that Miami high school which caused national outrage by using a clearly agitated, caged tiger as a prop at their prom? Salmoni defended the exploitation by claiming that being put on display at the prom was “enrichment” for the tiger — and was promptly criticized by a former zoo veterinary technician, who explained that “this was not enrichment, but a senseless act of cruelty and exploitation. You are clearly in the wrong line of work.”
Salmoni started working as a big cat trainer at the Bowmanville Zoo in 1998, where he apparently “really bought into” Hackenberg’s animal training. In 2000, with two mixed-subspecies tiger cubs from the Bowmanville Zoo in tow, he moved to South Africa to join a tiger farmer named John Varty for an unscientific and fraudulent “tiger rewilding project.” The project was filmed and aired on the Discovery Channel as a documentary called “Living With Tigers.” The project involved training captive-bred tiger cubs to “regain their predatory instincts.” Once the tigers proved that they could sustain themselves in the wild, they would be released into the wilderness of South Africa — where tigers are not native — to fend for themselves. Nobody with even a shred of conservation knowledge would consider this appropriate, and real conservationists have noted that since the tigers are not genetically pure, the project had zero conservation value. Animals 24-7 says of the documentary:
“The former Bowmanville Zoo trainer Salmoni and Dave Varty were repeatedly shown cuddling and playing with the tigers in a manner opposite to standard wildlife rehabilitation technique, in which contact with humans is minimized and discouraged. They towed dead antelopes behind a truck for the tigers to pounce, conditioning the tigers to appear at the sound of vehicles and perhaps, to stalk tourist jeeps. They kept a brother and sister tiger together until the female entered her first heat. They taught the tigers to hunt as a pack, which no tigers do in the wild. They repeatedly took meat from the tigers to “show them who is boss,” feeding them later in camp. This taught the tigers to associate human habitation with food. Eventually the Varty brothers proclaimed success in teaching the tigers to hunt, after the tigers killed seven springbok who had been released almost into their mouths.”
John Seidensticker, chairman of the Save The Tiger Fund Council, and senior scientist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, stated that
“The conservation community is pretty much opposed to this. It’s diverting funds that could be used otherwise. “Our definition of conservation is securing a place for wild tigers where they live, not a place in Texas or South Africa. There are a lot of people who spent their lives, sometimes at great risk of themselves, to work on (tiger conservation). It is going to be a story, this whole thing, about how to not do conservation.”
After working with Varty’s bogus “conservation” scheme, Salmoni returned to North America, where he continued to cultivate fame as a network TV “animal expert” while maintaining an active relationship with the Bowmanville Zoo as a promoter, trainer and presenter of circus-style exotic animal acts.
If these media outlets are serious about saving tigers, they’ll stop promoting irresponsible, self-proclaimed “animal experts” like Salmoni and instead listen to the real conservationists who say that cuddling wildlife on TV is a con, not conservation.
Dave Salmoni Self Described Lion Man Harassing and Endangers Lions
By Dr. Luke Hunter, Executive Director of Panthera
This week, Animal Planet kicked off the latest offering from likable Steve Irwin-wannabe Dave Salmoni. “Into The Pride” follows Salmoni as he attempts to prove that humans can live in harmony with wild lions. To do so, Dave scoots around the Namibian bush on a quad-bike looking for a close encounter with the big cats. You might think a 4-wheeler doesn’t offer much protection but, provided they’re not hunted or persecuted, lions quickly get used to vehicles. A vehicle acts just like a mobile hide which is why millions of people a year are able to enjoy extraordinary experiences watching wild lions from the safety of their safari jeeps and mini-vans in Africa’s great game parks. It even works with ATVs which disrupt the human silhouette sufficiently that Salmoni is on fairly safe ground — so long as he keeps his distance and stays on the bike. The problem is, that’s not daring enough for Dangerous Dave. When he finds the lions, he dismounts and, armed only with his shepherd’s cane, he walks up to them.
Understandably and predictably, the lions get pissed off. In one sequence from the series, Salmoni pulls this stunt with a lioness called Cleo, resting with the pride’s cubs and a gemsbok kill. Now, if someone asked me, how would I go out of my way to really aggravate a lioness, I’d tell them “threaten her when she is protecting her cubs. Or a carcass. Or, if you were an utterly self-absorbed ignoramus, both.” Cleo does what a million years of evolution have engineered her to do when faced with potential danger to her cubs — she charges. Dave shrieks a bit, high-tails it back to the ATV and scolds Cleo for her “inappropriate behavior.” Of course, it’s actually wholly appropriate — any wild lioness so gratuitously provoked is apt to do the same. Once he’s back on the bike, Cleo relaxes a little and backs off. Predictably, that only encourages this bushveld buffoon to try his luck again, and, again, Cleo comes like a tawny missile. She is upset, frightened and angry — all thanks to Salmoni who is determined to show us that, as he recently toldPeople magazine, he was ‘tougher than they were’.
What self-indulgent baloney. Salmoni repeatedly tells us his antics are necessary because these are aggressive problem lions that must be habituated for eco-tourism or they will be destroyed. That would be reasonable if he stayed with his vehicle, just as tourists, researchers, scientists, guides and park rangers do every day across Africa. None of these folks wander up to lions hoping to get cozy (well, occasionally they do but the ending usually isn’t pretty). If Salmoni was honest and respectful about habituating lions for tourists, he’d get them used to vehicles — it’s safer for both human and lion, and it wouldn’t provoke the same distressed fury from Cleo. Ironically, most of the first episode is taken up with encounter after encounter between Dave and his film crew watching lions from their Land Rovers. The tactic yields beautiful vision of lions being lions — Salmoni’s team cops a few baleful looks and one frustrated rev from Cleo when Dave drives too close, but nothing serious. But of course that doesn’t make good enough television so Salmoni makes sure he says ‘these lions hate vehicles’ a lot even after we’ve just watched shots of the cats doing little more than keeping a reasonable distance. And let’s not forget, Dave reassures us this is all in the name of “conservation” so it’s fine to crank Cleo’s stress off the charts.
And to what end? Even if Cleo eventually tires of charging this clown, all he’s achieved is to put her life more at risk. Lions co-evolved with our kind in Africa and generally do their best to avoid us. When wild lions see a person coming, they know enough to either disappear or give fair warning. Walking in the African bush, I’ve been the recipient of their low warning rumble a few times, like the sound of a tractor-trailer changing down gears. Lions tell people when it’s a good time to change direction because they want to avoid conflict. Episode 1 shows a textbook case from one of the males, Brutus, on Dave’s inaugural walk-in (niftily re-interpreted by our hero as the first step in Brutus’ ‘training’. Sheesh). Salmoni repeatedly forces these conflicts onto Cleo and her family in his puerile quest to show us who’s boss. If he succeeds, Cleo is actually a great deal more dangerous. Conditioned out of her natural, sensible instinct to keep people at a safe distance, her normal flight circle becomes perilously small. Someone — perhaps a lion-loving tourist who has seen the show — only need blunder into her and, faced with a perceived hazard at too-close-for-comfort range, she attacks. If it happens, the predictable outcome is that Cleo gets a bullet. Good work Dave.
The greatest shame of this made-for-TV nonsense is that it obscures the authentic and far more meaningful conservation efforts undertaken by thousands of passionate, anonymous professionals working in Africa today. They will never get the recognition that Salmoni craves and they certainly will never see anything like his pay check. But they are the reason that lions and the wild places they need will persist. Salmoni isn’t.
About the Author…
Dr. Luke Hunter is the Executive Director at Panthera, the leading global nonprofit organization devoted to saving the world’s wild cat species from the diminutive black-footed cat of southern Africa to the massive tiger of Asia. Hunter has conducted fieldwork on large cats in Africa since 1992. His current projects include assessing the effects of sport hunting and illegal persecution on leopards outside protected areas, developing a conservation strategy for lions across their African range, and the first intensive study of Persian leopards and the last surviving Asiatic cheetahs in Iran.
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