A few weeks back an immature tiger became the latest in the series of exotic ‘pets’ to make headlines. According to this video posted on Facebook, the young tiger fell out of the back of a truck onto a jam-packed road in the Qatari metropolis Doha, and spent a few moments desperately seeking cover before being captured.
Footage of a tiger frantically running down a busy highway is pretty riveting stuff, so naturally the story went viral. Like the bat sign the @DohaTiger—a catchall account for the city’s various loose tigers over the years—was activated. And local news crews clamoured to get ahold of the best video clips and latest details. It’s since been confirmed that the tiger was already a minor celebrity, in the city for the filming of V.K. Prakash’s upcoming flick ‘Marubhumiyile Aana’ (Elephant of the Desert).
But while regional outlets mostly downplayed the drama of the situation, aside from some choice puns focusing more on the illegality of the matter and potential harm inflicted on the animal, international outlets decided to run with the more sensational elements of the story. Headlines like Maxim’s ‘No big deal, just footage of a tiger casually strolling through traffic,’ or the Huffington Post’s ‘Escaped Tiger Snarls Morning Commute On Qatar Highway And Becomes Social Media Star’, framed the affair as an overall entertaining event for all involved. They also, unlike regional outlets that described the tiger as ‘confused’ and ‘wandering,’ made it seem like the animal was effectively going on a joy ride.
This interpretation, according to Dr. Elsayed Ahmed Mohamed, the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, is very far from the truth. He says those responsible for the young tiger, not to mention onlookers, are lucky no one was seriously hurt.
‘Unfortunately from time to time this happens, where people loose control of their exotic, often dangerous, pets like lions, cheetahs, or tigers as in this case, causing panic in the area,’ says Mohamed. Cities, roads, and crowds aren’t natural conditions for any wild animal, likely causing it to be terrified, eager to seek shelter and try to make sense of its surroundings. This is when both humans and runaway animals face the greatest chance of harm, Mohamed explains.
Earlier this month in Saudi Arabia a young man died attempting to ‘train’ a lioness, who was then killed during rescue efforts. And the Philippine government filed a lawsuit against a Kuwaiti man whose lions more or less ate his Filipina maid. The Internet’s also filled with supposed big cat whispers—young men willing to stick their hands in a lion’s mouth or wrestle with a tiger on the front lawn.
So far exotic ownership isn’t outright illegal anywhere in the Middle East (or for that matter, a majority of the world), but certain countries have shown an advanced commitment to change. The United Arab Emirates has already banned the import of a slew of endangered and exotic species as pets and certain regions of the country forbid the keeping of dangerous animals in private homes. After this recent incident in Doha there’s talk of extending the ownership ban nationally.
But even if laws are in place, says Mohamed, the underlying drive for the practice needs be addressed.
‘We believe it comes down to a matter of showing status, mostly amongst young men who want something strange to impress their friends or family,” he says. But there’s a general lack of awareness about the complications of these pets, like disease, expensive upkeep, animal welfare and danger of attack. ‘Until this changes, the motivation is still there for illegal markets.’
To stop the trend requires altering people’s views on the matter, something groups like IFAW are working towards with educational programs like ‘Belong to the Wild’, engaging school age children in the UAE.
‘We’d like to see media add to this message, showing the big drawbacks of exotic ownership for people and animals,’ says Mohamed. He says people also need to consider the plight of the smaller mammals, birds in cages, reptiles and every other wild animal held in captively. No matter how tamed an exotic or wild pet may seem, or how long they’ve been held in captivity, Elsayed says the heart of a wild animal always remains wild. He describes seeing photographs of a cheetah taken from a mosque where it had been kept in Saudi Arabia.
‘You could clearly see it was still very much afraid of people,’ he says, clearly still expressing its natural behaviour. ‘Our organisation believes animals belong in the wild and suffer when they’re not there.’
So next time you see a story about a big cat gone wild, before you laugh or share the video, consider the bigger picture. For every urban big cat story that makes the headlines thousands more remain in chains, and their freedom depends on how we collectively respond to each case.