Hey Nadia, you can shoot the messenger, but don’t hate the message. As you take what you do seriously, I take what I do seriously. Just hear me out.
(Edit: Nadia did reply to this post, and it is highly appreciated, you can read it here. An official follow-up interview has been requested.)
Cara Delevingne, Angelina Jolie, Karlie Kloss, Julienne Moore, Sienna Miller, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Campbell… what do all these names have in common?
Actresses? Models? Yes. But most of them are also fierce animal lovers, some are even known for championing environmental rights, and have worked side by side with big brands such as Tag Heuer, fashion magazine Harper Bazaar, Bulgari, Vogue, Elle and Versace – to name a few – who have chosen to use big cats – lions, lion cubs and cheetahs – in promoting their product or newest seasonal fashion trend.
“Use” should be used lightly here. “Exploit” is actually the word one is looking for.
And this is nothing new.
In the 1930s, international star of exotic cabarets, Josephine Baker was photographed with her pet cheetah named Chiquita who joined her in the show and it is said that she took him everywhere, to bed, in the car, on holidays and bought him a diamond choker.
In Vogue in 1960, a model poses as she dines with a cheetah, in 1967 model Veruschka van Lehndorff has her portrait taken next to a cheetah, in 1971 Apollonia walks a cheetah on a leash. A decade ago, in Harper Bazaar US, Naomi Campbell got called a ‘brave model’ as she posed on top of a crocodile, on top of an elephant, next to a cheetah and playing jump rope with monkeys.
It is nothing new, nothing has changed, yet the shout for animal rights awareness and the truths behind captive breeding is far louder in the 21st century than what it was back in the 1930s, or the 1960s.
But if the shout is so loud, why is South Africa’s natural heritage of wildlife still being exploited in the name of fashion? As a prop? Used, abused and violated for a photo, a video – against their will with no say in the matter – for a trendy marketing moment alongside a product or fashion item that will be long forgotten, discarded, in a few months’ time?
On the 12th of June 2019, social media influencer, Nadia Jaftha with her 310 000+ followers on Instagram, posted an Instagram story of a cheetah on a bed being ‘handled’ by the handler and behind the phone as she’s filming the cheetah her voice comes, “I’m shooting with this little guy today, totally chilled.”
Actually, Nadia, no. It’s not chilled.
Because here are the facts.
More than half of the world’s cheetah population has been lost. Cheetahs are bred on demand, often sugarcoated under the word ‘conservation’. They’re ripped from their mothers at a very young age so that they can be hand-reared as pets and exported to other countries, used as props for photoshoots (sometimes for up to 6 hours a day), walked as if they are domesticated pets and used as entertainment for tourists. And the same goes for the lion breeding industry that uses cute cubs for petting, then they’re used for a walking with lions experience, then they go into the canned lion hunting industry and eventually they end up in lion bone trade, which is legal unfortunately.
In some time Jaftha’s 310 000+ followers will probably see the other side of the “behind the scenes” and the photos of the cheetah being used in the shoot will possibly appear somewhere online, beautifully shot, beautifully edited yet with shadows of cruelty. By that time her follower count will also be higher, followers who are made up of young South Africans, followers who will most likely comment something along the lines of “ahh cute, I want one” or “where can I go cuddle a cheetah”.
And it is in these comments where the problem lies. It is in these photos where the danger exists. Because big corporate fashion names, publications and their models, actresses, and influencers working with – exploiting – these animals are legitimising these encounters. They are normalising animal abuse, animal exploitation and at the end of the day, animal extinction. And a lot of these celebrities are animal rights activists, yet completely unaware and uneducated about what goes on in the captive breeding industry, genuinely believing that posing with tame wild cats can be done under the name of conservation.
When will the marketing and fashion industry learn? How is it possible that these shoots are planned – by marketers, ad agencies, the brand and discussed and signed off by so many – yet no one asks the important questions?
After Tag Heuer, the Swiss luxury manufacturing company of watches and fashion accessories, did a shoot with their new ambassador Cara Delevingne, animal rights activists strongly objected to her posing with the lion cubs which formed part of a bigger campaign where she posed in front of a big male lion under the hashtag #DontCrackUnderPressure.
The backlash Delevingne received was not just a mere comment here and there, so why are marketers and brands (as well as celebrities and influencers) still setting themselves up for public failure and/or attack?
It is 2019, social media is abuzz with these issues, German Circus Roncalli just turned to holograms instead of live animals; we see it on our newsfeeds, on our timelines, on YouTube, is it still possible to claim “we didn’t know” or is throwing a blind eye just the easier way out?
Maybe Jafhta didn’t know. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. It is possible. Maybe it is a blind eye. That is possible too. I know I once threw a blind eye too (read here).
But soon her Instagram story’s 24 hour show time will disappear, it will be forgotten for a while, but then a photo might appear beautifully shot, beautifully edited yet with shadows of cruelty. Some will stand up for animal rights while others might say something along the lines of ‘how dare you, this cheetah was rescued’.
I dare. Because I care.
And you can, by no means, justify the exploitation of an animal.
As South Africans – whether you are a plain Jane, celebrity, influencer, or a brand – it is time to dare, to be custodians, to stand up for our natural heritage.
It is time to force the fashion and marketing industry to #CrackUnderThePressure and put an end to this.
Africa’s animals are not your fashion accessory.
Nadia, I warmly anticipate your reply, let’s talk about this and I hope that you turn this around and inspire others to not condone this type of behaviour because you have that power, you have that influence and for that I respect you.
To anyone reading, let’s be grown ups about this without making snarky remarks and comments about someone’s character, to spread awareness and educate is key here. And I’m also by no means saying that the cheetah owner is physically abusing the cheetah, the issue is about the well-being of captive cheetahs and that they are deprived from thriving in their natural environment.
For further reading, read this article by Dr Louise de Waal on the The exploitation of captive cheetahs.