Today in America, there are more 'pet' tigers in private hands than there are in the wild. According to the Humane Society of the United States, captive populations range between an estimated 10,000 and 20,000 individuals, a stunning 5,000 of which are believed to be living in the state of Texas alone. This is due mainly to lax exotic ownership laws throughout the country. These laws vary by state, and each state has a radically different stance on the topic. As of 2009, just 18 states banned exotic cats as pets. The rest either require their residents to obtain a permit in order to keep a large-breed cat, or require the owner to have a veterinary certificate. Due to these lax laws, tigers in private hands are a risk to humans, subject to abuse and illegal trade, and have suffered from improper breeding that may have longstanding affects on the genetic integrity of all captive tigers worldwide.
In addition to private owners, many captive tigers in private hands are kept in roadside zoos or so-called ‘rescue centers.’ For many people, zoos are considered a gray area in the world of conservation, and there is much confusion over what separates a good zoo from a ban one. Ideally, zoos should exist for the sole purpose of conservation and education, so it is important to realize that there is a huge difference between these true zoos and roadside menageries or private collections. Thankfully, there is one organization in the United States that has made a point of keeping good zoos separate from bad: The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, also known as the AZA.
Founded in 1924, “the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation.” They have literally set the standard for all American zoos, and are the creators of the Species Survival Plan, a breeding program created to help increase the genetic diversity of captive wildlife populations. Zoos which are accredited by the AZA work closely with the Species Survival Plan and aim to actively educate the public about the issues many of these endangered species face.
AZA-accredited zoos are required to:
1) Provide proper care and husbandry to each and every animal. This includes a sufficient enclosure, proper food and medical care, as well as adequate enrichment.
2) Not allowed to sell or loan their animals into private hands.
3) Have a certified exotic animal vet on call at all times.
4) Breed animals only for conservation or to increase the genetic integrity of captive populations. This means they are not allowed to inbreed or hybridize.
5) Put the welfare of their animals before the monetary gain of the zoo’s staff and owners.
Roadside zoos operate a completely different set of rules.
1) They’re allowed to sell their animals, often condemning older, weaker animals to canned hunts.
2) They’re not required to provide physical or mental enrichment for their animals. Many exhibit signs of dementia or practice self-mutilating stereotyping behaviors such as incessant licking or nonstop pacing which can lead to open sores and infection.
3) Cage size is dictated by state laws which are nearly impossible to enforce. In some states, “proper” size is defined by the animals’ ability to turn in a complete circle without touching the bars of its cage.
4) They’re allowed to buy animals from non-accredited backyard breeders of exotic animals.
5) They’re allowed to force their animals to perform tricks for entertainment.
6) They’re allowed to let visitors interact with the animals, which is dangerous for both parties involved.
7) They’re allowed to propagate unethical breeding practices, such as hybridizing and inbreeding.
8) Regular medical check-ups with a licensed vet are not required, and many roadside zoos don’t have any vet help at all, since there are only a small handful of exotic animal vets in the country.
9) Births and deaths are not recorded, making it hard to law officers to keep track of what happens to the dead bodies. Some end up on the black market for bush meat or traditional Chinese medicines.
Another group to be wary of are the so-called ‘rescue’ centers which collect and breed big cats or other large-breed predatory animals. ONLY support registered non-profit organizations which DO NOT breed their animals. There is already a vast number of unwanted big cats in America, and a true rescue center will not intentionally breed more for the sake of gaining more visitors.
There are also places which claim to be working for conservation and education, but who are merely roadside zoos attempting to justify their actions. One of the most famous of these is the Marcan Tiger Preserve in Florida, which claims to be breeding the ‘endangered’ white tiger for conservation purposes. I find this amusing, since even the World Wildlife Fund considers these inbred ‘hybreeds’ to be nothing more than a “genetic aberration.” Nowhere on earth can you find a legitimate conservation effort attempting to release white tigers into the wild, mainly because their genetics are so messed up that doing so would be detrimental to the genetic integrity of wild tigers.
There’s also my personal least favorite: A group which calls themselves “T.I.G.E.R.S” or The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species. While the acronym is certainly clever, it’s also gotten them into a bit of trouble with the zoo community, which has pressed charges against them in the past on the grounds that the name is misleading – and it is. Though they claim to have released some of their tigers into wildlife parks in India, if you take the time to Google the names of said parks, you’ll find them to be nothing more than an overseas version of an American roadside zoo.
In short, it REALLY pays to education yourself on the ethics of an establishment before handing them your money. All AZA-accredited zoos will state that they’re accredited on their websites, so you can check it out beforehand from your home computer. Likewise, all registered non-profit organizations such as rescue centers are required by law to give you their registration number if they do not already provide the information on their site. If you don’t see it, ask for it, and if they don’t provide it, don’t go.
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