This is a segment that the New York Times did on Inti Wara Yassi, the organization I volunteered for last spring and in the summer of 2008.
I would agree with Luke Hunter, the representative for Panthera who speaks in this clip- Inti Wara Yassi’s work with individual animals is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to species conservation. But I would also argue that animals which have been confiscated from illegal private ownerships do have the right to a satisfying life. They deserve to be as free as possible without being harmful to humans. And it is important to understand that Inti Wara Yassi’s work is not to solve environmental problems, but rather ethical problems.
That being said, I think Mr. Hunter makes a good argument about projects like this drawing attention away from what is frankly more important- habitat conservation and working for legislation that protects wildlife. These ventures will do better to ensure a future for these species.
As for the issue in regards to human safety when working with big cats: It’s actually more dangerous to work with monkeys at these parks because they’re less predictable and there’s so many of them. As I understand it, no volunteer has ever suffered a life altering injury from working with the big cats (though this is not the case with the monkeys.) Either way, I believe that humans should have the right to take these risks and that it does offer these individual animals a potentially better life. Inti Wara Yassi is a far cry from perfect, but I believe in what they are trying to do.
P.S.- Big thanks to Patrick for showing this to me!