Want to know a frightening fact? There may be more captive tigers in the United States than left in the Asian wild. And these American tigers aren’t being born and bred in accredited zoos or academic settings, they’re backyard big cats.
You read the headline right—thousands of tigers and lions are being privately held on their owners’ property across the United States, often under little to no regulation.
In 2008 researchers with TRAFFIC released the first, and only, study to attempt to quantify the phenomena of big cat ownership in the US, incorporating the full array of state and federal records they could get ahold of.
‘At that time our best estimate put the American captive tiger population at around 5,000 animals, only six per cent of which lived in zoos and regulated institutions,’ says Leigh Henry, co-author on the 2008 TRAFFIC study, now pursuing the captive tiger problem with WWF.
Carson Barylak with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, IFAW, writes that the issue may now be even bigger.
‘It’s estimated that there are over 10,000 big cats in private ownership in the US,’ she writes, possibly as many as 20,000, and that figure excludes facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and legitimate sanctuaries.
Considering there may be only 3,200 tigers left in native Asia, it wouldn’t be exaggerating to call this a cat crisis.
But how did this happen? It turns out a bizarre loophole in the law is to blame, coupled with a general lack of state and federal regulation.
The origins of the problem
Today Big Cats Rescue is one of the largest and most active organisations continuously working on all angles of private captive big cat ownership in the US, but they group arose out of rather unusual circumstances. Susan Bass, Director of Public Relations for BCR, explains that in the early 1990s founder Carole Baskin and her husband were at a local animal auction to pick up some lamas—‘free lawnmowers,’ as Bass calls them—to manage their large stretch of property in North Tampa.
While there a baby bobcat came up on the auction block. Baskin, puzzled what you’d even do with such a wild animal, asked a bidder his intentions.
‘He said he was a taxidermist, planning to take it into the parking lot and kill it to make an ornament,’ says Bass. ‘She was horrified, made sure she was the highest bidder, and took the bobcat home.’
But just where had this baby bobcat come from? At the time, before the dawn of the age of the Internet, Baskin didn’t really have the resources to understand all the nuances of the situation, but knew she needed help to raise the youngster properly. When she asked around for advice, she found there was a big group of people breeding bobcats and other wild cats in the area.
‘These people were passionate about the cause—some told Baskin they made great, loving pets, others said this was an act of conservation,’ says Bass. ‘Neither of which were true, but she didn’t know better at the time.’
And what Baskin was experiencing in Florida was just the tip of the iceberg. While it’s impossible to know when this odd trend became a noticeable one in the US, the records show a steady stream of yearly big cat attacks from 1990 onward. Starting out small at four or so incidents a year, by the mid 1990s things had gotten much worse. In 2005, there was 103 big cat attacks in America. By 2015 the 25-year US total hit 768.
Owning a big cat is bad for everyone involved
The tricky truths of big cat ownership soon became obvious as Baskin’s bobcat grew up, doing what any bobcat would naturally do, bonding strictly to her and ignoring, even disdaining her husband. He soon desired a bobcat of his own to even the playing field, compelling the couple to head to Minnesota following the lead of a breeder. Again Carole and her husband were faced with a major ethical dilemma.
‘This individual had 56 bobcat and lynx kittens, plus dead animals on site. It was clear a fur operation was being run, only some cats sold as pets,’ says Bass. Carole and her husband talked the owner into buying every single kitten on the condition they’d shut down the business forever, and BCR was born.
‘It worked,’ says Bass, ‘and the pair drove back to Florida with 56 babies that needed to be fed every two hours.’
Baskin managed to find homes for a few of the rescued stock, but made it clear if the cats became too much of a burden, she’d take them back. She wound up doing just that in nearly every case, Bass says. ‘Once a bobcat is fully mature to say it wants nothing to do with humans is a nice way of putting it— any childhood bond they formed with a human disappears almost entirely.’
And it’s not just the companionship angle of big cat ownership that’s problematic; it takes an incredible amount of resources to put up big cats in your home.
‘There are many people who obtain a big cat with the best of intentions, not understanding that they do not have the funds, space, expertise, infrastructure, etc. to properly care for an apex predator,’ writes Barylak. ‘Simply feeding a big cat for a year can cost over $10,000, and the cost of adequate enclosures, veterinary care, acreage, and stimulation for the animals is far greater.’
There are minimal standards of handling safety and humane care defined in the USDA exhibit license, but minimal is the key word here. States like Florida stipulate two big cats per 10’ by 20’ cage, but the federal law only suggests owners make good judgement calls, like putting their animals in a cage they can stand up and turn around in.
Bass says most of the cats they get are skin and bones, suffering from chronic starvation. Alternatively, some cats like Tiesha are dealing with the flip-side of malnourishment—so overweight the 13-year-old can barely walk.
Luckily BCR has two volunteer veterinarians. Bass says a persistent complaint is broken teeth, destroyed from efforts to escape their cages or confines. Skeletal issues and old, untreated wounds are also something that plague many of the sanctuary’s cats. One of their cougars, Mickey, arrived with torn ligaments on the back of both knees, requiring serious surgery and long-term rehab work. Needless to say, most rescued big cats also suffer from mental ailments like depression.
The confusing USDA loophole that created the American backyard big cat
A huge driving force behind the captive big cat supply in the US is a roughly four-week USDA regulatory loophole, inadvertently creating a way for people to get up close and personal with big cats. It’s not recommended to touch cubs younger than eight weeks or older than 12, but there’s no rules stipulating what’s legal in the interim.
‘That four week window is what breeders have latched onto, offering the chance to pose or pet tiger and lion cubs, as amazing as that seems,’ says Bass. ‘The business can be incredibly lucrative, we’re heard breeders brag about making tens of thousands of dollars over the course of a weekend set-up.’
Barylak writes the variety of venues captive big cats can be found in across the US is wide. ‘Thousands of cats are found at roadside zoos, in homes and yards being treated as ‘pets’; at cub handling and photo-op exhibits; in pseudo-sanctuaries; caged at gas stations and other businesses as novelties; sold into the illicit trade in big cat parts and products; and, all too often, warehoused and left to die.’
Aside from the trauma these conditions impose on cubs, a potentially scarier consideration is precisely what happens to these cute and cuddly cubs once they’re no longer legally profitable—and seriously dangerous.
Henry says as sad as it is, the real truth is that at this stage the animals are likely worth more dead than alive, the illegal markets willing to pay big bucks for animals owners want to unload. The 2008 TRAFFIC study was born out of concern that these unwanted cats could wind up flooding the black market with American tiger parts.
‘It’s completely illegal, but not hard, to put tiger parts in a Fed-ex box and ship it off,’ says Henry. ‘The US is considered a leader on wildlife issues so we really need to get our own house in order before we can start criticising other places with worrisome captive tiger populations.’
That means starting by closing this small legal window in the USDA license altogether, she says, otherwise there will always be a demand for cubs, stimulating the breeding businesses.
The larger disjointed state of regulation
Of course ending the problem of backyard big cats will require establishing a legal framework to make private ownership of large or exotic cats illegal outright—no exceptions. Stopping the problem completely will also require much stronger government regulation, and state and federal groups to work together.
‘The laws are a mismatched jumble right now, with no one group in charge of the issue entirely,’ says Henry. Without uniform regulations forcing every state to at least track the big cats in their boundaries, it’s impossible to have all the facts, and even harder to decide how to go about fixing the issue.
Right now there’s 20 states with various versions of this exhibition license. According to Barylak, only three don’t have this gaping loophole. In fact there’s seven states—Nevada, Idaho, Alabama, Wisconsin, South and North Carolina, and West Virginia—that don’t even require a standard license or permit to own big cats.
Bayark writes that in some places it’s easier to get a big cat online than a pet from a shelter. ‘Big cats are astoundingly easy for private owners to get at auctions and online. A simple Google search will show countless ways to obtain a big cat cub of your choice for a relatively low price and with no questions asked. And all too often, this is legal—there are places in this country where registering a dog is far more burdensome than acquiring and keeping a big cat.’
She goes on to explain not only are USDA exhibitors licenses extremely easy and inexpensive to obtain, government reviews have shown that many license holders are not actually displaying their animals at all, but simply keeping them as pets.
Of the five email requests for more information sent to various sellers advertising tiger cubs and adults online, each was replied to within hours stating the listed animals could easily be obtained. In some instances, whole litters were up for sale, many crossbreeds with lions or so-called ‘white tigers’.
Despite what breeders may claim, white tigers and lions in the US come from the result of intensive inbreeding that comes with nasty consequences. The case of Kenny the white tiger is proof just how far people will go in pursuit of a white coat.
In 2011 the problem of American backyard big cats gained national and international attention when a man killed himself after releasing the residents of his ‘animal farm’ near Zanesville, Ohio. Law officials felt they had no choice but to point and shoot escaped individuals, resulting in the death of 48 animals in total, 18 of which were Bengal tigers and 17 lions.
The story was a shocking one, alerting many to the depth of the crisis in the country and the serious ethical and public safety implications of allowing big cats to live amongst ordinary citizens. In remembrance of the Zanesville incident, in 2012 WWF got together with other advocacy and welfare groups like BCR, filing a joint petition with the USDA to end private big cat ownership altogether called HR. 3546 or the Big Cat Public Safety Act.
Henry says that although the bill was met with initial intrigue, the hype quickly fizzled against a backdrop of strong opposition. WWF is no longer directly championing the law, but groups like BCR, Born Free, and the Humane Society are still invested in seeing the bill become law.
If adopted, HR. 3546 would phase out captive private big cat ownership completely, grandfathering animals in their current settings but making it strictly illegal to breed big cats, or replace them once passed on. Bass and Henry are both clear no one is suggesting existing big cats be unnecessarily euthanised.
But there are still big hurdles to overcome even if it the bill makes it past the House. Bass says there’s big money supporting lobbyists to work against the bill. She even knows of a breeder who travelled to Washington to let representatives pose with a cub, touting the niceties of his business.
And it’s not just in Washington that these big cat criminals are spreading their twisted message. Barylak writes there are fraud organisations, funded by those who stand to profit from big cat breeding and dealing, that propagate inaccurate information, tricking then misinforming the public.
One such operation calls themselves the ‘Zoological Association of America‘ (ZAA), strikingly similar to the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums), a group that holds themselves to comprehensive, science-based standards and focuses on the safety of animals, staff and patrons.
Hope for the future
After more than two decades in operation, Bass says BCR’s greatest goal is to reach a point where groups like themselves aren’t necessary. With a staff of 15, over 85 feline residents, a Facebook following of around 2 million, a commitment to video documenting every rescue, and hundreds of thousands of people subscribing to their online newsletter, the sanctuary hopes their efforts reach enough people to turn the tides for good. Educating voters is the biggest single challenge ahead, Bass says, part of the reason the group’s social media presence is so important.
HR. 3546 was just reintroduced with new backers, and Bass says they’re hoping for more concrete results this time around.
‘Our ultimate goal is to go out of business,’ she says. ‘That would be our greatest dream come true.’
Want to help influence lawmakers to do the right thing when it comes to protecting big cats in the US? If you’re an American, check out BCR’s outline of how you can help demand action from legislators. If not, consider supporting the stupendous work of the many groups worldwide looking to save our precious remaining wild tigers and get the US tiger crisis under control, like TRAFFIC, Save the Tiger Fund, and Born Free.