Q&A with Jessica James of the ICARUS Foundation

The exploitation of big cats for profit is a topic the ICARUS team frequently writes about on their blog. Ringling Brothers over the top Tiger by chensiyuan. GFDL.
The exploitation of big cats for profit is a topic the ICARUS team frequently writes about on their blog. Ringling Brothers Over the top Tiger by chensiyuan. GFDL.

The ICARUS (International Consortium for Animal-Welfare Reform United in Stewardship) Foundation is a brand-new group that is dedicated to eradicating crimes against wildlife. I have been following their blog since their first post, and I have learned a great deal about issues pertaining to big cat welfare from them. I have also watched their influence rapidly expand: to the point of being able to host an international summit on wildlife crimes this past February.

I recently sent Jessica James, ICARUS’ founder, a series of questions about her organization. Her answers are listed below, and they exceeded all my expectations. They are a perfect introduction to this up-and-coming group!

First off, tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes you so passionate about addressing wildlife-related crimes?

I was born loving wildlife, and from an early age participated in observing it in its natural environment–the wild. The older I got, the more important it came for me to “be the voice” of the animals around me, both domestic and wild. I began volunteering and interning at places. The more I saw “inside” the current system for protecting wildlife, the more appalled I became. By the exploitation, the lack of laws preventing it, and the lack of enforcement of the laws that do exist. So I decided to do something about it.

How did the ICARUS project get started, and what are its main goals?

ICARUS had the humble beginnings of a thesis project involving the rehab and reintroduction of wildlife. It wasn’t until I was immersed in it that I realized rehabbing, and reintroduction were only factors within much larger problems. Our main goals now are reconstructing–or building from the ground up–laws which are designed to protect wildlife and captive wildlife worldwide. We dream of a world where there are no wildlife sanctuaries, because there is no need for them. We want wildlife to remain wild.

You recently hosted an international summit related to wildlife crimes. What were the main takeaways from that event?

The summit was what changed our mission from just rehab and reintroduction, and a PhD focus, to our developments in tech, research and networking. We now stand poised to work with some great organizations on tech development for anti wildlife crime work. But the connections we made and being able to break down walls and enjoy our work were huge takeaways as well. As empaths we often get bogged down in daily routine and some wildlife professionals never get to be part of the wild they are saving. Thus it was refreshing and renewing to be able to interact with others who share our ideals, and will join us in changing the future for the better.

The ICARUS crew often writes about the dangers of cub-petting on your blog. What makes this practice so harmful?

There are *so* many harmful repercussions to cub-petting. The dangers for the cub begin literally in-utero, simply because by breeding cubs in order to use them for petting you are self-fulfilling the need to breed cubs to be used in petting schemes. This might happen in America, yet actually have a visceral impact in areas like South Africa where the canned hunting business revolves around “lion farms” that do nothing but produce cubs who are first used in petting schemes; and once they become too large for the public to handle are then sold for canned hunting, which remains a billion dollar a year business.

Petting a lion cub might seem like a great experience, but it can actually contribute to the horrible canned hunting industry. Petting a Lion Cub by Graham. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Petting a lion cub might seem like a great experience, but it can actually contribute to the horrible canned hunting industry. Petting a Lion Cub by graham. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

After birth, the dangers range from deaths if the cubs are handled before their immune systems have developed, to the transmission of zoonotic diseases. The danger of disease transmission remains for the duration of the interactions, no matter how old the cubs get. Once they’re too large to be used for cub-petting, they become “just another captive big cat:” one more animal burdening an already overwhelmed and under-regulated system. Their fates run the gamut from canned hunting to roadside zoos, or private ownership.

Lastly, what can readers of this blog do to help end crimes against wildlife?

The most basic thing that every person can do is research issues. There’s a huge amount of information available in this digital world, but people just don’t ask questions, which is how groups like Black Jaguar White Tiger have accrued 5 million+ followers on Instagram. No one asks even basic questions like “If you’re against exploiting these animals, why are you raising them in your closet, playing with them on a daily basis, allowing them to sleep in your bed, and inviting wealthy celebrities to come play with them?”

It may be legal to own big cats as pets in many areas, but that does not make it right. Sumatran Tiger by Hans Braxmeier. Public Domain.
It may be legal to own big cats as pets in many areas, but that does not make it right. Sumatran Tiger by Hans Braxmeier. CC0 Public Domain.

People need to realize that right now there are few laws, and little oversight where captive wildlife is concerned. But just because it’s legal for someone to do something, does not mean that it’s not a crime against the wildlife involved. The wheels of the legal system turn slowly, and often it’s public opinion which can help grease them. The public at large can help develop better laws simply by demanding that they be developed. So if something seems too cute to be true, one must consider the possibility that all it’s designed to do is be adorable and attract attention, not actually aid conservation.

Please visit the ICARUS Foundation’s blog to learn more about them and the issues they are passionate about!

Further Reading:

Big Cats Are Beautiful But This Is Why They Should NEVER Be Pets

Project ICARUS

The Mistake of Lion Cub Petting & Canned Hunting in South Africa

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16 thoughts on “Q&A with Jessica James of the ICARUS Foundation

  1. Thank you for this very enlightening interview. I love wildlife but abhor the zoos, circuses and other places where they are kept captive. However, I didn’t know all the ramifications. I will certainly be following ICARUS for sure.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s my pleasure! The treatment of captive animals is important for many reasons, but they’re a little outside the main themes of this blog. So it’s great that ICARUS does address the welfare of big cats and crimes against them, and I’m glad you’ll be following them to learn more!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. The treatment of animals in zoos are indeed poor, but they really are a necessary evil :|
    I can imagine the average person would have zero connection to wildlife without them, and without their connection goes a lot of donations, research funding and protection.
    I don’t think there’s really a way around that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad you brought that up, because my feelings about zoos are similarly mixed. They can be horrible for animals: as even the best zoos confine them to inadequate amounts of space. And the conditions in some zoos are downright awful.

      But like you said, in many cases zoos are the only things keeping urban people attached to wildlife. When I reflect on my own life, it was at the zoo that my interest in wild animals was ignited into a fervor, it was at the zoo my imagination first became filled with visions of the Amazon, and it was at the zoo that I most painfully learned about how vulnerable so many species and ecosystems are. As I continue to read scientific papers on conservation, it’s becoming clear to me that some zoos play an important role in funding scientific research.

      So I don’t think it’s a good idea to outlaw zoos, but it IS necessary to make the as humane as possible. If that means having fewer, but larger exhibits per zoo, then that’s fine by me. However, ICARUS writes about far more than zoos. Many of the behaviors they criticize, like hoarding big cats in false sanctuaries in order to get noticed by celebrities, are ones that I fully oppose. But animal welfare is not the main concern of this blog, so I recommend you visit ICARUS’ blog to learn more.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Josh, what do you think about the recent incidents regarding wild animals attacking individuals? I know this occurs anyway, but it seems to be occurring more often and unexpected in either areas where animals are use to human interaction or areas like in Florida where wild life is not expected to habitat around humans. For one, the Orlando incidence with the 2 year old boy, the alligator was located in an area which is not common but not unheard of. As a society, what should we do to make sure the animals do not feel threaten and protect ourselves?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. First of all, I’m not sure if animals are attacking people more often now or if it just seems that way because of recent news stories. The only way to know for sure would be to look back over the records and look at the trends. However, given the fact that wild animal habitats are rapidly shrinking, and that some animals seems to be adapting to life in human-dominated areas, the potential is there for more negative interactions.

      The best thing to do would be to preserve as much natural habitat as we can, so that fewer wild animals are forced to live amongst humans. But we can only protect so much land, so this won’t solve everything. I also remember reading a recent study that found that 50% of all wild animal attacks involved people acting in ways that elevated the risks, such as walking with their dogs off the leash (unleashed dogs are great at flushing out animals that are trying to hide, thereby forcing a confrontation). So we can possibly reduce attacks on humans significantly by educating people about the safest ways to behave in areas where there are potentially dangerous animals. We need to be careful not to make people unnecessarily afraid though.

      As for the alligator incident, one of the things I heard is that there were no notifications posted alerting people to the fact that alligators inhabited those canals. Some simple warning signs might’ve done a lot of good in this case.

      Of course, we’ll never be able to eliminate the risk of wild animal attacks completely. But some simple knowledge about how to behave around certain animals can go a long way towards making both us and them safer. When I’m back in front of my computer (I’m on my phone now), I’ll include the link to the study I mentioned. There’s some good information in there about this topic.

      Lastly, we need to be honest about the scope of this threat. Those of us who have never had to live around potentially dangerous animals might become more frightened than is helpful, simply because wild animal attacks aren’t risks we’re used to. The media also loves to air them, because they get people worked up. So looking up some statistics about the likelihood of being harmed by wild animals, versus the probability of being hurt in other ways, might help us keep things in perspective.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Hello Yvonne, I found the study I talked about in my earlier reply. It claims that large carnivore attacks on humans in developed countries have increased in recent decades, and that this is a result of a combination of factors: increasing carnivore populations due to successful recovery efforts, more people in formerly remote areas, and the fact that large carnivore populations have been so low for so long that many people no longer know how to reduce the risks posed by them. This last element appears to be key, since half of all well-documented cases of large carnivore attacks on people have involved human behaviors that increased the danger. So educating people about how to behave when they’re in areas inhabited by large carnivores could significantly reduce the amount of attacks.

      Here’s the link to the study! It’s open access, which means anyone can read it for free. http://www.nature.com/articles/srep20552

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks Josh! As always, you thoroughly provide insightful information. I will check on this link. You have provided a response that gives me another way of viewing the psychological relationship between animal and human life along with some of the causal factors in the dynamics we are experiencing. You should be proud to know that you are instrumental in enlightening me and so many others globally.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Wow, thanks Yvonne, those are very encouraging words!

          The story really gets interesting when you zoom out and look at how other people around the world handle animal attacks. In some places, like in certain areas of India, human deaths from wild animals are much higher than they are in North America. But some people are still remarkably tolerant of animals like tigers, considering the level of danger they pose. One of the factors at play there (and there are many) seems to be that people in those locations have grown up with those dangers, so they have learned to cope with them: sort of like how we are able to accept the risks posed by driving so frequently.

          But to continue the car analogy, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything to reduce the risk posed by wild animals. We have seat belts and driver training to make driving safer, so we should also have safeguards in place to make it easier to live near potentially dangerous wildlife. As I said in my previous replies, I think a lot of that will come down to teaching people how to behave around certain creatures.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I agree Josh, those like you are doing your part to enlighten us and help us see the parallel of assuming some responsibility as well. Prior to your blogs, I did not get it. Continue to do what you are called to do. I hope the passion remains.

            Liked by 2 people

  4. Apologies for not participating sooner! We’ve been very busy, several members had family and friends directly affected by the 1000 year flood in West Virginia. Firstly, we’d like to say THANK YOU to Josh, for hosting this interview! And secondly, we’d like to thank all of you who have read it, commented, and then come over to I.C.A.R.U.S. and checked us out. We greatly appreciate the support, and value the connections made with our fellow conservationists!

    Liked by 1 person

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