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:
*Thinks* I for one, have always wanted to own an exotic animal. Obviously I am not going to go in like a lot of Americans seem to be doing, and get a tiger, or a lion, or a bear, or a giant crocodile. Or any other animal that could easily kill me or severely damage me. I think that the largest animals should be banned, especially the big dangerous icons like those I listed above. That also includes elephants and so on. Although smaller, more.... easily kept animals like foxes, fennecs and siberians are popular, lynx, skunks, and so on. Servals and Caracals are also kept as pets, and many owners have reported that they enrich their lives a lot. Private kept zoos can be amazing, I went to one in Wisconsin once, and they took care of all their animals, they rescued a white male tiger that's eyes were permanently crossed due to irresponsible breeding. They were very credible and the animals lives were pretty good, they also serve to educate the public about the natural wildlife that exists right in Wisconsin. Showing that you don't need tigers and bears to get a thrill from being around wildlife. I actually had more fun watching some deer than I did getting to pet the tiger. Yes you can get that close, before you say that is irresponsible, another one of their tigers, was rescued from a pet situation where their owner could not afford to keep him. He is de-clawed in the front, and his teeth were filed down, he goes right up to the edge of the cage and stands there like "Pet me please". I can see the allure, but stories of them attacking people seemingly for no reason are too common. I do believe that this needs to be FAR more regulated than it is now. Although should you include smaller felines like lynx and servals in the ban? If they were banned? I mean if you ban tigers they are going to go for the next big thing, plus completely banning tigers encourages people to go around the law. This is a very complicated subject, I've never really thought about it too much, but I've always frowned upon people that keep animals just to say they have them. I have had many exotics, and I am looking to go into a field working with animals in zoos or being a zoologist out in the field, possibly being a vet of some sort. :3 Dreamjobsareawesome XDD. Either way if I were to ever keep an exotic it would be treated like it was in a zoo, or better. It would be used to educate the people around me about exotics, and of course I would treat it right. Point being, it needs more regulation, but there are a handful of responsible keepers, in a crowd of bad ones.
There is a huge difference between domestic and wild animals. Dogs and cats have lived alongside humans for thousands of years and they have even evolved in behavior to understand our tone of voice, facial expressions, and directional ques. Wild animals have obviously not done that, nor will they.
There are millions of unwanted pets in the USA, and buying a serval or lynx from a breeder merely condemns a perfectly-adoptable and well-behaved domestic pet to death.
I rescued a Bengal cat after college, and he was, without a doubt, the WORST cat I've ever had. I don't understand why anyone would want one in their home when they could adopt a perfectly affectionate domestic tabby instead. After Paco left, I got a Manx instead. The difference in behavior between the two breeds - on partially wild, and one completely domestic - is mind-boggling.
In short, the only reason that people want to have wild animals as pets is to boost their own egos. And that's about as selfish as it gets.
Sugar gliders, skunks, and other animals have been proven to bond with humans. First of all, with my sugar gliders, I don't speak human to them. I speak sugar glider. Most think it's silly but I will crab when they do something bad, and I will bark to call them instead of using their 'names'. They don't respond do much else, only what they can understand. Also one of my-notice he is a rescue- sugar gliders Momo, bites me and grooms me, it is a way of showing affection but it hurts. I allow it because he doesn't mean any harm. Scolding them for natural behaviors is not going to get you anywhere, even when it comes to dogs and cats. You can't stop a cat from scratching, only encourage them to scratch somewhere else. Dogs have a pack instinct, they are easier to train to go against their instincs, like chasing squirrels. They really are man's best friend.
If you have ever had/pet/seen a feral cat you would know that they can be just as wild as any mixed breed or wild breed of cat (Except for wild breeds can get big enough to look at you as food). It comes down to how the cat was raised. Oh and unless your bengal cat was less than 3 generations down from the wild cat it had little to nothing to do with the wild cat because there has been a considerable amount of domestic cat mixed in. It's true that bengal cats and savannahs are really energetic and have special needs, they get destructive and mean if they are not played with or given mental stimulation. My guess is that you did not have a bad cat, you simply did not know how to handle the exotic. I don't have my sugar gliders, or my hedgehog, because I want to boost my ego or social status. I have them because to me, they are more interesting than anything else in the world. You can't get me into video games, or sports, or much else, but put me in a zoo environment and you will see my face light up like a four year old in a toy store. I would spend hours upon hours just watching one animals behavior, I am never ready to leave. To get close to one of these animals is magical, and I have felt it before and to be able to get close to one whenever I want... well that may be selfish, but tell me you don't want to get as close to heaven on earth as you can?
Many animals can 'bond' with humans. That doesn't make them domestic. They're still wild animals, and there's nothing that can change that aside from thousands of years of selective breeding. That's pretty basic stuff.
And my Bengal was more than 6 generations from Asian leopard cat.
You have exotic animals because they are interesting to you? That's still just as selfish as keeping one to boost your ego. And I don't believe that's right. Haven on Earth is not exploiting wild animals for personal gain. It's not rocket science.
I never said that they were domestic. I said they could form a bond with humans.
Then your bengal had very little pure wild blood in him, and that was nearly certaintly not the case of him being agressive or antisocial, destructive, whatever problems you might have had. All cats are different, and stereotyping a bengal with a wild cat's personality, is like stereotyping a pit bull to be aggresive. Some cats just are this way, and he was a rescue, maybe his old owner didn't raise him right? Whatever the case may be, blaming his behavior on his blood is not the way to go about it even if his blood did play a role.
Well, it might not be heaven on earth to you, but it is to me. Some people get drunk and say that is the thing that thrills them the most, others skydive or participate in sports. With me it is animals, and actually it is science, maybe not rocket science but what motivates and inspires people is different for everyone, and it has to do with the balance of chemicals and how they were raised. Phsychology is a very complex subject and every person is different, just like every animal is different.
By the way, I feel the need to inform you, that my gliders have a giant cage that is taller than me and longer than my armspan. They get out in my glider proofed room every day. Not to mention Allira, is so bonded with me, she will run right up to me and sleep in my shirt. She loves me, or at least realizes that I symbolize good things, and she is naturally going to go to the giant human that pets her and gives her fresh fruit. I make all their own food, a special diet just for them, 4 out of the 5 are rescues, the other one was bought from my mom's friend who had a litter and was having financial troubles. They are no more wild, or even less wild, than a hamster or a guinea pig. Which people commonly buy at a pet store. They just require different care than them.
Not to mention I would never think of breeding my sugar gliders, both of my males are fixed. (You can't fix the females) I am not going to breed them, and if I truly only wanted them for my own /personal/ gain, I wouldn't have rescued them. Allira, the one I got from my mom's friend as a joey, is far more friendly and "domestic" because of how she was raised. She responds to me calling her name, and knows when I say ouch that she is grooming too hard. I would've just bought them all from breeders if I didn't give a shit about the animals. If I hadn't rescued Momo and Mort, they would've probably been put down. I gave them a second chance at life because other people don't know how to handle exotics and get them because they are "cute" or like you are saying, they get them to say "Look friends, I have a sugar glider! Aren't I cool?"
It's true I have exotic animals because they are interesting to me, I love them, and to be honest, they are the reason I get up every morning. Nothing really inspires me, or motivates me to keep living like animals do.
In that case, you are exactly the kind of person who creates all the problems for wildlife mentioned in the above article, whether intentionally or not. You are implying that it's okay to remove animals from the wild and breed them for profit solely for human entertainment. You are not contributing to conservation; you are not helping the animals. If you can live with that, then it's clear that you're putting yourself before them - and that's not love; that's the epitome of selfishness.
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`anmari has been spreading her infectious positivity throughout our community for over 6 years. Throughout this time Ana has been at the core of all things devious, passionately developing an eclectic gallery, helping organise devmeets, participating in chat events and also recently completed dedicating her time as a Community Volunteer. We are absolutely delighted to bestow the Deviousness Award for May 2013 to `anmari, congratulations! Read More