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Fiona Miles – the Lion Lady

The last thing Fiona Miles wants people to think is that she keeps a house full of cats… but it’s not too far from the truth.

After 13 years in the industry, this passionate woman established the South African office of the FOUR PAWS International Animal Welfare Foundation, and subsequently ensured that 150 lions that had been rescued locally and internationally have had a permanent species-appropriate home, free from danger and cruelty.

Fiona, country director of FOUR PAWS in South Africa, has managed to build the  organisation as a leading NGO campaigning for a better life for lions and has shown there is in fact a solution to the global problems big cats are facing.

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“Every roar that echoes between the escarpment of LIONSROCK is a reminder to me that we have saved an animal and are giving it the best possible life, right here in the Free State; but it is also a reminder that the job is never done – because we’re far from a world where animals are treated with empathy, respect and understanding,” she says.

Setting up the LIONSROCK Big Cat Sanctuary in the Free State (outside Bethlehem) was a new venture to Fiona, but she had ample experience in business and processes to help set
up this project. Her experience also led her to learn a lot about conservation throughout her time at the Sector, Education and Training Authority (Seta). FOUR PAWS crossed her path almost by chance, but once the task at hand was defined, she was adamant to make a difference, however, it was not an easy task that awaited her.

After visiting the property, today known as LIONSROCK, she was shocked by what she found. “At first sight, I thought to myself: ‘Could this be real?’ The farm was far removed from anything remotely considered animal welfare, as this was in fact a breeding farm for lions – destined to be killed in the awful canned hunting industry.” That was of course the challenge that lay ahead of her: Turning a breeding farm, where lions were exploited for commercial gain, into a sanctuary for big cats – their final refuge.

Upon witnessing a lion trophy against the wall, the skin of a lioness used as a rug on the floor and little lion cubs running over the rug – once a majestic lioness – Fiona realised that the task was far greater than she had initially anticipated. “I felt a personal responsibility to give these animals a better life.”

After presenting the vision of FOUR PAWS to the relevant government departments, obtaining approval from stakeholders far and wide, the team was finally able to purchase the land and started building what is now the biggest big cat sanctuary in Africa.

Whilst drinking her coffee – which she takes with half a sweetener – I ask her what  motivates her to get out of bed to continue the long fight against animal cruelty, for lions in
particular, as the reality is: nothing will change overnight. “At a certain point in my life I realised that more needed to be done to ensure that animals get to live their lives the way
they were intended to, and that there were injustices to be stopped. I want to see empty cages, and that is really the motivation daily,” she says.

As we are celebrating women this month, I direct the question of whether it is difficult to be a woman in this industry – being up against mostly males on the opposite side of the fence.

“The work we do is sometimes regarded as a hobby, a mere pastime and often we are regarded as bunny huggers. I believe women have the affinity for nurturing, caring and
ensuring the well-being of life.

“That is what we do: We do all we can to ensure the lives of these animals are extended, and that they have the ability to live their lives in a dignified way.”

We do all we can to ensure the lives of these animals are extended, and that they have the ability to live their lives in a dignified way.

To a certain degree, this ties in with one of the most important qualities another woman taught her… respect. Through her mother’s teachings, Fiona has learned respect for humans and for animals – which also coincides with the philosophy of her organisation.
World Lion Day is celebrated on August 10th, and her biggest wish for this day is to see the protection for lions fully restored and that they’ll one day only be seen in the wild.

“The captive lion breeding industry represents what’s wrong with the world; where humans feel they have the right to exploit animals for commercial gain. If we can find solutions
where the world cannot profiteer from these animals, we can put our efforts to extending their lives and habitat. We are currently in a situation not only where lions in the wild
are at risk, but the welfare of captive lions deteriorating at an alarming rate. More and more proof of devastating keeping conditions are surfacing, illustrating the abominable situation South Africa is currently finding itself in.”

A turning point for lions will come eventually, but it will take a lot of courage, says Fiona.
“The tipping point will come when people with power make the decision to fight for these animals and are willing to see those decisions through – no matter what the political impact will be. When this happens, we as NGOs can invest our time and resources into the further protection of this species, rather than constant fighting for changes in legislation. When
this courageous decision is made, and legislation is changed, we can put more into care, conservation and resources will be able to go so much further.”

For now, she’s far from giving up, because she believes that change will come. “It simply must,” she concludes.


TEXT: MJ Lourens

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