Three times a year the small town of Mount Hope, Ohio hosts a three-day sale of exotic animals. For a modest entrance fee of five dollars, visitors can meander among the crates, shopping for bearded dragons, Fennec foxes, and wallabies. Or they can ponder the merits of purchasing a black bear, a cougar, a sugar glider, or a zebra. For a seventeen-year-old boy and his eager-to-please, divorced dad, a two-week-old African lion was the winner. In April 2005, they plunked down $900 in cash for the cub, whose eyes were not yet open. No permit and no "owner's manual" included. (Ohio law did not require a permit, and still didn't at press time.)
The very next day the boy and his furious mother turned the lion, Alex, over to Tiger Mountain Refuge in Rainelle, West Virginia. John Forga, who runs the sanctuary with his wife, Myreda, asked the teenager where he had intended to keep Alex, as he and his mother lived in an apartment. Forga recalls the boy's answer: "'I was gonna train him to be friendly and he could have stayed in my room.' He was going to grow up in a child's bedroom watching TV and eating Cheetos!"
Alex now weighs 585 pounds, lives in a 2,500-square-foot enclosure, and dines well on a daily diet of twenty pounds of fresh beef, one adult tame rabbit, and two vitamin-infused chicken legs. Tiger Mountain shelters a bevy of other unwanted, abused, neglected, and confiscated big cats, including a blind African caracal lynx, a black leopard that was nearly euthanized by a private zoo in Ohio, and a cross-eyed, 350-pound Bengal tigress abandoned by a small zoo in Missouri.
No one knows exactly how many exotic pets live in the United States, or how many foreign animals are brought into the country every year. Hundreds of millions, from tropical fish and butterflies to lab monkeys, enter legally, making the U.S. the largest importer of live, wild animals in the world. Add to that a lion's share of the illegal international trade in wildlife, valued by the U.S. State Department in 2007 at $10 to $20 billion worldwide—a business that has been compared to drug and people trafficking, and that uses many of the same criminal networks and smuggling routes. Each of the 120 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors must assess thousands of animals crossing U.S. borders every day of the year.
Tigers and other endangered big cats fall on the illegal-import list, but there is little point in smuggling wild tigers into the U.S., since those already present reproduce easily in captivity. And few federal regulations govern ownership or breeding of big cats, even though those are some of the most difficult exotics to care for properly. Cheetahs, cougars, lions, tigers, leopards, and more are often raised in cages too small for them to turn around in, and fed insufficient or inappropriate food, such as canned dog food.
Tigers are among the most popular: 7,000 to 15,000 of them live in private roadside zoos, circuses, sanctuaries, farms, and backyards in the U.S. Owners are often deluded into thinking that they can tame the creatures, treating them like house cats, perhaps attracted by the challenge. Yet even house cats, which have been domesticated for thousands of years, will reach out and swat their human companions. What happens when a six-month-old, sixty-pound beast with claws and flesh-slicing incisors takes a swipe? At that moment, a would-be tiger trainer must realize that the animal is wild, not some docile furball. Captivity does not equal domesticity.
Today wild tigers inhabit just 7 percent of their original range, a territory that once stretched from the Caspian Sea to the island of Bali in Indonesia. Their range has shrunk by 41 percent in the last decade alone. Most wild tigers subsist by hunting wild cattle, deer, and pigs in isolated pockets of forest in India, Sumatra, eastern Russia, and southern China. The dwindling of their natural habitat and poaching for pelts and tiger parts—used in traditional Chinese medicines such as tiger-bone wines and tiger-penis soups—compounds the tigers' risk of extinction. The wild tiger population has plummeted from an approximate count of 100,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century to less than 5,000 today. That means thousands more tigers live in captivity in the U.S. than in the wild.