08/17/2012 07:46 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Petting Lion Cubs in Port Elizabeth

I recently went to South Africa, where I pet a lion cub. I'll tell that story, but first I have to tell you about my cat, Fuzz.

When I adopted Fuzz, my parents refused to accept our relationship. "She's just going through a phase," they said. "She would have a dog, but she lives in a studio apartment," they told their friends. Now, six months later, they're acting like the newest members of the local PFLAG chapter -- sending me links to funny cat videos, buying cat-themed coasters, inviting my cat to join the family at Thanksgiving, etc.

That was a big step for them, but owning cats isn't really that different than owning dogs. Cats just require a little more imagination. Dogs, you see, make it easy to believe that they really love you. They run to the door when you get home, wagging their tails and slobbering in a joyous manner. Now, you and I both know that your dog is not thinking, "I love you so much, great and wonderful master!" His thoughts are probably more along the lines of, "Oh thank goodness, the hairless monkey with the food is back." But we choose to believe they love us, if only to justify the vet bills.

And dogs make it easy to believe. Cats, on the other hand, make you do the heavy lifting. It doesn't help that, while dogs automatically smile just by opening their mouths, cats always wear an expression of wide-eyed incredulousness. "You're wearing that to work?" my cat seems to ask with a quizzical tilt of his head. "You could at least coordinate the food stains on your shirt with the food stains on your skirt," he adds.

Though Fuzz has a bit of an attitude, I do believe he loves me. For instance, sometimes he sleeps on my feet. Never mind that, when he wakes up, he tends to attack my toes -- digging his claws into my skin as if to drive home the point that, if I were just a little bit smaller, I'd be kibble.

Now, it's one thing to be delusional about the inner lives of housecats, but how about lions? Actually, it's surprisingly easy to believe that lions are all love and cuddles as well. While on safari in South Africa, my boyfriend and I came upon a pile of lion cubs. They rolled on their backs in the grass, taking clumsy swipes at each other, and being generally adorable. They really did look -- and act -- a whole lot like big kittens.

The lion cubs were so cute, I didn't even notice that they were also crusted with bits of gore.

"Look, a jackal," said our guide, pointing out a lifeless heap of fur and entrails in the grass. Apparently, the cubs had batted around the poor wild dog all night. They didn't even have the decency to eat him afterward.

Suddenly it became clear that, cute as they are, these 50-lb lion cubs could put a serious kibosh on our vacation.

That, however, didn't stop us from visiting Seaview Lion Park, where you can pet a lion cub for the bargain price of about $9. Cheetahs, servals and tiger cubs were also available for petting, though the tiger cub was a bit pricier - at $18 for a five-minute turn.

We were beginning to feel uneasy about the whole setup - the enclosures looked a bit small and dingy -- but we paid up anyway and entered a cage containing four sleepy lion cubs and an equal number of college-age "volunteers" who supervised our petting and provided dubious, lion-related information. "He's not trying to hurt you," said one woman, when a cub took a swipe at Steve. "He just doesn't know how strong he is." I'm no lion expert, but I suspect that the cub wouldn't be all that chocked up if he disemboweled my boyfriend. Who knows, Steve might taste better than the jackal.

I kept my trap shut, though, because I wanted a picture with a lion. Unfortunately, the only awake cub was busy chewing a hole through the pants of a volunteer. "This is weird," Steve said. "Let's get out of here."

Indeed, the whole thing felt seedy and sort of sad, like a strip club. I think our sense of unease came from the fact that just as nubile co-eds don't belong in the laps of sweaty septuagenarians, lion cubs don't belong in a petting zoo. And then there's the question of what happens to them when they get too big to pet. Some people suspect that they're sold to private game parks, where trophy hunters pay tens of thousands of dollars to shoot them.

In any case, I feel sorry for having contributed $12 to this sad endeavor. However, you have to admit that whoever thought of it is pretty smart. The place is staffed by college kids who pay upwards of $2,000 for two-week "internships," and the lions, well, they more than pay for themselves whether they are cute and cuddly, or fanged and fearsome.

At another, more reputable park, I spotted a cat fast asleep in a porch chair. "Ooooh, is that a serval?" I asked. "No, that's my housecat," said one of the owners, who thankfully didn't add, "you imbecile." Now, here's a cat I can cuddle without guilt, I thought. So I scooped up the kitty and made Steve take pictures. The cat probably hated it, but he was too lazy to protest. "What a nice kitty," I said. "Fuzz is going to be so jealous when I get home and he sees all these pictures of me with other cats."

I'm home now, and I must say, Fuzz is acting a little aloof. "It was just a fling," I told him. "It didn't mean anything." In any case, I certainly won't be doing it again.