Today in the United States, 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. According to a 2009 report released by Big Cat Rescue, the largest exotic cat advocacy and rescue center in the USA, “just eighteen states ban big cats as pets; ten states have instituted a partial ban; and two have no laws regarding exotic animal ownership whatsoever”. 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 nothing more than 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 ‘bad zoo.’ 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 to increase genetic diversity in a captive population and work to actively educate the public about the issues many of these endangered species face.
Roadside zoos and private owners operate on a totally separate set of rules. They exist for the sole purpose of entertaining human curiosity, even by cruel means such as breeding ‘freak’ animals or forcing animals to perform tricks. They are also able to sell and trade their charges into private hands, often condemning older, weaker animals to canned hunts, a practice in which a wild animal is placed in a small enclosed area so that a hunter can more easily locate and shoot it for ‘sport’. This practice is condemned even by other hunting organizations in the United States for being un-sportsmanlike and cruel.
In addition to this, the quality of the care that animals in roadside zoos receive, as well as the size of their enclosures, is often regulated by state laws which are nearly impossible to enforce, often leading to extreme cases of abuse and neglect.
Private owners and roadside zoos are also allowed to propagate un-ethical breeding methods, such as hybridizing and inbreeding, with little regard for the resulting offspring’s health. This has led to a serious problem for conservationists. Studies conducted by Dr. Ron Tilson, head of the Tiger Species Survival Plan, concluded that tigers kept as pets in captivity are a cross-bred mix of various subspecies. Any tiger whose ancestry is mixed is no longer a candidate for captive breeding programs. Thus, anyone who breeds tigers for the pet trade is not helping to conserve the species, despite what they might claim; they are instead creating more genetically-unfit tigers that cannot contribute to the survival of the species.
Likewise, non-accredited owners of exotic animals are often found to display their potentially-dangerous 'pets' in completely un-regulated settings, letting tourists and guests pose with their big cats for photos, or allowing them to hand-feed them through the bars of cages. Such practices have led to a massive increase in exotic pet-related deaths in the last decade.
Much like zoos, rescue centers are also a ‘gray area’ when it comes to conservation ethics. A true rescue center is a registered non-profit organization which does not breed their animals. With the high number of exotic predators in need of sanctuary already, it hardly makes sense for an ethical rescue center to purposefully breed more. Even Big Cat Rescue, the largest not-for-profit predator rescue sanctuary in the USA, claims that they must turn away literally hundreds of animals each year because they simply don’t have the room to keep them all.
There is also much concern that captive big cats in the USA are falling victim to the illegal wildlife trade. This suspicion is often supported by such grizzly finds as the infamous incident at ‘Tiger Rescue’ in Northern California. After being tipped off that owner Jon Weinhart was keeping animals in unsanitary conditions, investigators began to scope out his property. What they uncovered was described as simply horrifying. The dead bodies of more than 90 endangered tigers and leopards–58 of which were cubs—were being stored in freezers. Their pelts had been kept hidden in a nearby barn. Weinhart never made any statement as to what he planned to do with the pelts, but it was apparent to investigators that he was processing them for something. The situation was probably one of the most horrific accounts of a supposed ‘rescue’ center gone horribly wrong.
Humane Society International, a branch of the Humane Society of the Unite States, claims that an estimated $10 to $20 billion is generated annually by the illegal wildlife trade. The impact that this has on the environment is devastating. On the black market, a dead tiger can sell for more than $25,000 to the right buyer. Most of the internal organs including bones, meat, and even genitals are then sold overseas to be made into traditional Chinese medicines.
Aside from the possibility of falling victim to the illegal wildlife trade, many exotic cats in private hands also fall victim to abuse and neglect. During numerous investigations, the United States Department of Agriculture has pinpointed the cause of this problem as simply being a lack of experience among owners. “As a result of these difficulties, or because the animal has either attacked someone or otherwise shown aggression, the owners may try to find a new home for their animal. Placement of these unwanted animals is difficult because most zoos are unwilling to take them, and few sanctuary facilities exist. Many of these cats end up being killed for their pelts and meat.”
Sadly, many of the big cats I've personally worked with and photographed in captivity are there because they were rescued from the exotic pet trade. One such cat, a hybrid lynx at the High Desert Museum in Sun River named Snowshoe was found by a hiker in Castle Crags State Park in Northern California in the summer of 2005. The cat was starving at the time, and after close examination it was discovered that his canines and claws had been removed. He most likely had been a pet that was turned loose into the wild.
There’s also the well-known case of the 400-pound tiger that was rescued from a New York apartment building in 2003. According to the CNN report, the tiger’s owner, Antoine Yates, called police from the lobby of the apartment complex, telling officers when they arrived that a pit bull had attacked him, biting his leg open to the bone. An investigation followed, and NYPD uncovered the true identity of Yates’ attacker: A 20-month old Amur-Siberian hybrid tiger weighing over 400 pounds.
Another odd example of a big cat rescue comes from the San Diego Zoo, which houses a large female white tiger named Blanca, who was rescued as a three-month-old cub by United States Customs Service at the California-Mexico border. “She was traveling from San Diego to Mexico in the back seat of someone's car,” the zookeeper explained, “but because special permits are required to transport tigers, the tiger cub was confiscated.” It’s possible that the driver of the car was attempting to trade the cub for drugs, as tigers are a popular ‘pet’ among cartel leaders, who view them as status symbols. White tigers are especially valuable, and can be sold alive for up to $60,000.00.
Of course, many people will argue that there are a handful of responsible big cat owners in the United States who have unique relationships with their animals. Siegfried and Roy had forged what they called “strong” relationships with their tigers. But in 2004, one of those tigers turned on them, leaving Roy in a coma for several weeks. Six years later, he has still not fully recovered, and the popular Vegas show has been cancelled. If disaster can strike even the best, it can certainly happen to anyone. And if it’s legal for Siegfried and Roy to keep exotic cats as pets, it’s equally legal for people like Jon Weinhart of Tiger Rescue to do the same.
In order for things to change, new laws must be instated and old ones must be better-enforced.
What needs to happen is a dramatic change in federal and state laws, allowing only accredited zoos and rescue centers to keep, breed, and exhibit big cats. This will decrease the number of human-tiger conflicts, ensure that the animals are not abused, help curb the trade in illegal tiger parts, and help preserve the genetic integrity of captive tigers so that they may remain on this earth for our future generations.
More sources for information regarding the issue of exotic animal ownership: