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Wildside: Training the Big Cats

Wild felines do not make good pets. This article discusses views on training lions, tigers, cougars, and leopards. Learn about wild animal training at ark animals. Visit the ABC's section for more technical articles on animal training.

Training the Big Cats

In working with the various types of both exotic and domestic animals you begin to notice trends within each species and the peculiarities of the individual personalities. I have had the good fortune to work with a wide variety of animals and cannot claim to be an expert in any one. What I can do is assess and understand what is going on with an animal of any species and how to address the situation, not only with particular strategies, but by paying attention to individual characteristics and species specific traits.

When I started my career in the late 1970's my focus was on educating and conservation. By accident, I was whisked away from the marine mammal world into the terrestrial (land) animal field. I started by enrolling in a course and apprenticing with some of the biggest names in Hollywood trainers. Basically I began as a glorified pooper scooper. This is a traditional role for new people in the field since it is a good way of getting to know the animals, their behavior, and letting them get used to you.

Many of my first experiences were watching other trainers training. Then I got to assist by being what is called a "back-up". Essentially the back-up trainer is the person who handles crowd control, alerts the trainer to possible problems or obstacles and assists them should there be any trouble. They handle everything else but the animal! This can be a very interesting and demanding position. It is also a very important one since it allows the trainer to completely focus on the animal. Most accidents happen due to trainer error so it is important to assist them to be able to have that focus.

Learning how to work big cats starts with learning how to "read" animal behavior. You essentially have to become one with the animal to understand how they think, react, and feel. Captive wild or exotic animals are highly evolved creatures. They have all the evolutionary advantages due to the "survival of the fittest" heritage and lack of domestication by man. No matter how tame a wild animal appears, the fact is that they are still wild animals and react that way.

Reading behavior means anticipating what the animal will do before they do it. Sometimes, when you see an accident, the trainer has failed to do this successfully. Good trainers will see or sense a problem BEFORE it becomes one or before the animal decides to do anything dangerous. When they fail to do that someone usually gets hurt.

Each species is different and there are different ways of approaching them. Also, the individuals within any group vary too. Just as with humans, each individual has certain approaches or techniques that they will be more responsive to. In the big cats you deal with a couple of basic differences and species characteristics.

Of course, there are exceptions to any rule. Sometimes animals with a marginal upbringing do not fit the mold. This can be due to poor breeding or upbringing but usually happens through training instability, traumatic ownership/facility transfers, negative encounters with people, or ownership by uninformed or unskilled people. Keeping this in mind, here is my summary of some of the general trends or species specifics. The social styles of individuals can be found elsewhere in another article.


Jaguars and leopards have attitudes that can best be described as being compared to our domestic felines. They are independent and solitary in nature and have quick reactions. During a scene in the filming of the television series "Daktari" a leopard was supposed to be jumping over the actor. In the scene that was filmed, the leopard bite the actor numerous times while jumping. It was so fast that it went undetected by the crew until the scene was done. It was interesting to find that since it was good footage it remained in the series.

These cats react on a dime. They are quick to take action and are very tactile responsive. They can get excited by scents and physical touch which means that they can get so turned on they become dangerous. Most cats bite or scratch when aroused so figure in a size difference and go from there with your imagination! These animals take your breath away with their beauty and grace. They can also take you or leave you depending on their mood! Fast and intense is how I would describe them.


Tigers and cougars are some of my favorite animals to work with. They are very responsive and pretty stable creatures in comparison to some of the other big cats. They could be categorized as more like our domestic canine friends in how they react and approach things.

Tigers have a greeting called a "chuff." When they like you they will make this sound to greet you. It is like blowing puffs of air out of your mouth in a quick short sequence. Each tiger has their own version of this. They often will accompany this with a head thrust towards you --similar to a gesture where you would point your noise at something. If they really like you and have something to say, this greeting may be followed by a drawn out tiger sized "meow" and rubbing.

Most tigers I have worked with have a great sense of humor and playfulness. The get this twinkle in their eye and have a great time bounding around after the "joke" is played. One of my favorite cubs used to "hide" behind a small fence post like she was going to ambush me. It was pretty silly since the post only covered her tip of the nose and in between her eyes! This was playing out some of her hunting instincts which was a natural behavior but one that has to be regulated and controlled so that when the tiger grows up they do it on command or only in controlled circumstances.

One of the biggest challenges in working with the big cats is to remember what things need to be controlled. For instance, it was considered cute by others when "Sheba" was a cub and she would mouth you in play. This was not acceptable behavior! She was taught to rub instead. As a cub a "hug" with her paw pulling you into her was sweet. However, these behaviors when she becomes a very large tigress are less than desirable! Everything done in cubhood has to be carefully directed so some trainer down the road doesn't have a problem with things the animal was allowed to do as a cub but are no longer appropriate.

Cougars or mountain lions are very similar to tigers in attitude. They have a whistle greeting that they make when they are young. They also have a rumbling like purr. This type of vocalization vibrates through your whole body! If you have ever wondered how they got the Mercury Cougar to snarl so wonderfully I'll tell you!

That famous snarl was not always a real one --most of the time. "Flehmen" is a behavior where a large cat will wrinkle up their nose and analyze a scent. Often, all that was needed was some sort of scent or perfume to get that reaction. The rest was done by dubbing in the sound. Very rarely did they use a real snarl and when they did you could really tell it was real by the way the animal held their ears, the eye glare, and the tail lashing!

One acquaintance of mine, who runs a feline rescue facility, described cougars as similar to the Disney character of "Tigger." She said, "it seems that the cougars are like big Tiggers. Bouncy, trouncy, bouncy, trouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!" She feels like that's all the world is to many of the inbred retarded cats that are in the pet trade. Her opinion is that they will attack in a playful mode, but of course do not realize that people can't handle it. That could explain why you hear that captive cougars can attack one minute, and then will be purring the next instant after the person gets away; Often they will look at the person with a starry-eyed look of, 'What just happened?'

Cougars that have been rescued from homes have been known to be very dangerous; this is different from my experience with them where they have consistent training and a stable upbringing with professional handlers. This is why I do not endorse public ownership of wild or exotic animals as a general rule. There are some GREAT private owners and facilities but these animals have such special needs it is not fair for the average person to get one and then decide they can't handle them later.


Lions are one of the only truly social cats. The difference between the males and the females is greater than that of any other of the big cats. I would say that they are the most emotional of all cats in that the males can have pretty instant mood swings. They are pretty laid back but when they aren't you had better watch out! Lionesses can be worked in groups pretty easily due to their social nature. They are great hunters and have a very strong cooperative bond.

Working the big cats is dangerous when you work with food because of the intense food drive and "fight or flight" response. Food is the key to survival and they will fight over it. Often the cats will be utterly aggressive at feeding time while calm at others. One of the tricks of the trade is to not feed on a completely predictable schedule to avoid having a problem with that type of aggression.

These animals are also great at nonverbal communication. Once, we were working a group of lionesses loose in an arena. They were being trained to run to different buzzers, which is called "A to B work," and is used in getting some scenes you see in commercials or television or movies. The food is placed on the buzzer location and the tone calls the lion/ess to it. I was elected to give out the supply of meat and work the buzzers behind the protection of an electric hot wire.

Things were going well and we were finishing up when one of the lionesses, "Arusha" came up to me, she looked at me, looked down at the hot-wire, and looked back at me. I knew in a heartbeat that the wire was not "on." She went off with her trainer when he came to get her and I touched the was cold. One of the electrical connections had slipped off the connector during our training. She knew it, I knew it and thank goodness she told me! With a male lion I probably would have been in grave jeopardy despite having taken the precautions before we started.

Male lions are another story. They can switch moods immediately. From a nice big lion enjoying a breeze to a wild beast that will kill you over a blade of grass. "Possessiveness" is a problem not only with food but with various objects they may get attached to. When they grump around they remind me of a big bully with a scowl on his face. The box car trap scene in the recent movie, "The Ghost & The Darkness," had a really grumpy lion in it. Not something you want to experience close up, believe me!


Training or owning wild animals is not something I recommend. In fact, I do not encourage it. Too many animals are not cared for properly by people who think it would be fun to own one. In my 19 years in this type of work it has broken my heart to see animals being abandoned , having severe illnesses or mistreatment because of an improper diet, or a lack of understanding or concern for them as the beautiful wild creatures they are.

Wild or exotic animals are not good pets, and I do not own any myself. If you'd like to help them, work at conservation and education with a zoo, private facility or captive collection. Be sure to check other articles here for guidelines to some of the groups who are really doing something and where your money and help will count.

About this animal expert: Since 1978 Diana L. Guerrero has worked professionally with both wild and domestic animals. Guerrero has been affiliated with, and certified by, a variety of animal programs in the USA and Europe. Based in California, she writes, consults, and speaks. Information on her animal career programs, training courses, and her books {What Animals Can Teach Us about Spirituality (SkyLight Paths, 2003), Blessing of the Animals (Sterling, 2007), Help! My Pet is Driving Me Crazy (Guerrero Ink, 2007), Animal Disaster Preparedness for Pet Owners & Pet Professionals (Guerrero Ink, 2007)} can be found in this web site and in the shop. Questions for Guerrero should be submitted via the blog comments or membership forum.


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