In June 2021, a viral Facebook post showed what its author claimed was a lion receiving a foot massage at a big game reserve in South Africa. The widely shared post, published by Sandra Fan on June 10, included two photographs of a lion apparently relaxing and rolling around on its back, while a man rubbed its paws. The caption read:
No, this is not a hunting photo…..Briton Alex Larenty lives on a game reserve in South Africa and spends his days giving lions foot massages. One day, he discovered that every time a lion was applied a cream to cure an infection on its paws, the lion would slacken and appear to smile. Since then, he has massaged all the lions in the park on a daily basis. Thanks to the pampering, he created a bond such that just by seeing him arrive, the lions lie down, begin to stretch their legs and smile. With love and respect, all relationships are possible!
The photographs were authentic, unedited, and did indeed show Larenty giving a lion a foot massage. As such, we are issuing a rating of “True.”
The top picture was taken in 2010. A Getty Images caption provides the following detailed description:
Trainer Alex Larenty gives Jamu the Lion a foot massage at the Lion Park on May 31, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Casting a spectacular image, Jamu the nine-year-old male lion enjoys his favourite game ‘This Little Piggy’ with fearless handler, Brit Alex Larenty, 50, from Chipping Norton.
Caught on camera in sunny South Africa last week, 250kg [551 lbs] Jamu looks like the cat who got the cream as he casually lies back and lets his keeper massage his gigantic paw. Alex, who emigrated to South Africa, is able to get incredibly close to the big cats he works with at The Lion Park near Johannesburg, through complete mutual trust. Having reared many from birth, he is able safely to walk into the middle of colossal Jamu’s pride and play games while surrounded by huge numbers of the massive predators.
While a stranger trying the same thing would end up as lunch for the animals, Alex uses his unique relationship to get close to the big cats he loves. He said: “I built up a relationship with Jamu through putting insect repellent onto him, which is necessary here to keep our animals protected from things like parasites. He eventually realised he liked being scratched and tickled and now his favourite game is ‘This Little Piggy’. He loves it’.”
The bottom picture was licensed by the Caters agency and originally published in a 2009 Daily Mail article. It reportedly shows the same lion, Jamu.
Larenty himself appears to have absolutely no involvement in hunting, as the Facebook post points out. However, the Lion Park — now known as the Lion & Safari Park and relocated from Gauteng to North West province in 2016 — has been embroiled in hunting-related controversy in the past.
In 2014, the CBS program “60 Minutes” reported that the Lion Park had been selling lions to traders known to sell on the animals to hunting operators, as part of what is known as the “canned hunting” industry, in which lions are trapped in a fenced enclosure to be shot and killed by heavily armed tourists, many of them American.
The Lion Park admitted that, in the past, lions had been sold on to unscrupulous traders, but said this was done inadvertently and they had changed their practices to ensure it would not happen again.