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.)
[ad: 51 1094]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.
Private owners often cite such statistics as reasons for supporting a growing population of caged tigers. In captivity, large exotic cats breed easily as long as they are given a steady supply of fresh meat and a minimum of space. The Animal Finders' Guide, a newsletter published eighteen times a year by Pat Hoctor, a former breeder in Prairie Creek, Indiana, shows that there is no shortage of both cubs and adults up for grabs in the U.S. A seller in Texas, for example, offers "free—two male tigers 2 1/2 years old, like women; one female tiger, 6 years old, likes men and women; cages with cats." Another advertisement, from a breeder in Oregon, offers a “Barbary lion and caracal kittens;” a third, in California, is selling a “rare Asian leopard cat female, nine weeks old, bottle raised.” More startling still: the price tag of a tiger cub—between $300 and $900—is comparable to that of a poodle puppy registered with the American Kennel Club.
The astonishing ease with which you can buy, sell, or give away a tiger—or other big cat—attests to the mess of laws covering exotic cat ownership in the United States. The 1973 Endangered Species Act bars the import of tigers into the country, but does not forbid private ownership of those bred here. The USDA issues licenses to exhibitors of wild and exotic animals, but pet owners are not eligible to apply for one. In 2003, a watershed federal law was passed: the Captive Wildlife Safety Act bans the interstate shipment of lions, tigers, and bears for the pet trade. However, the law does not forbid the breeding and intrastate delivery of the animals for non-commercial purposes. State and local laws vary widely and contain numerous loopholes that can confuse even the most earnest pet owners. Some states have banned exotic cat ownership completely, while others don't even require the animals to be registered.
So confusing and inconsistent are the laws that many people are ignorant of them. Paris Hilton found out that her pet kinkajou—a small rainforest-dwelling mammal related to the raccoon—was illegal in California only after it bit her at 3 A.M. one morning in August 2006 and she required a trip to the hospital. Breeders and self-styled conservationists also appear unconcerned about the rules banning interstate shipment. “How many tigers do you want? I'll send them to you. “ Brian Werner jokingly offered when I interviewed him by phone from New York. Werner is the executive director of the Tiger Missing Link Foundation, which operates Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge in Tyler, Texas, and vice president of the Feline Conservation Federation (FCF), an advocacy group that represents private owners. “It's legal for me to send tigers to you as long as I'm not selling them. I am licensed by the USDA, by the way. But even if I weren't, I could give them to you.” In fact, a USDA-licensed facility can only transport an exotic cat across state lines to another licensed facility, or to an organization exempt from the prohibitions of the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, such as a nonprofit sanctuary. Violation carries a prison term of up to five years, but this does not deter many people. Tiger checks at state lines aren't exactly common.
In the past few years, states have started moving toward more control. In 2004, for example, the New York State legislature amended its environmental conservation law to ban the breeding of any wild cat species or the sale of wild felines as pets—a precaution likely taken in the wake of the 2003 case of Ming, a 400-pound tiger confined to a Harlem apartment [see photograph on previous page]. Ming now lives at Noah's Lost Ark, a nonprofit exotic animal sanctuary in Berlin Center, Ohio. Other states have followed suit and tightened laws after lions and tigers have mauled owners, the grandchildren of owners, or bystanders.
Matt Joseph keeps ten exotic felines on his thirty-acre ranch in Lisbon, Ohio: four cougars; two male lions; one lioness; two female ligers (a cross between a male lion and a female tiger), and one female Siberian tiger. He bought all of them from breeders, ranging from Georgia to Minnesota, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and houses the cats in 1,800- to 3,200-square-foot enclosures. “I go into cages with them, I lay with mine, I sleep with mine,” Joseph says. “A lot of people who've seen me do what I do say I'm crazy.” He appears to believe that he is immune from serious attack, despite statistics showing that exotic cats do injure owners and bystanders. In 2003—the same year that a 600-pound white tiger named Montecore dragged Las Vegas showman and tiger trainer Roy Horn across the stage and mauled him in front of a live audience—eighteen people were injured by captive tigers and four were killed. Even Joseph, who says he has seen other collectors confine tigers in cramped quarters, believes that nobody should own the animals, “not even myself, much as I love them and enjoy them.”
So what happens when pet owners find themselves threatened, attacked, or simply bored by their large pets? Many people abandon them. To prevent this, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission created an annual Non-Native Pet Anmesty Day. The free event, which will have its third anniversary on February 23, 2008 at the Miami Metro Zoo, gives remorseful owners the chance to turn over their animals without penalty—thus saving the local ecosystem from more strain. (Other alternatives are scarce. Most zoos require strict pedigrees for their animals, and they likely have an already-filled quota of tigers, lions, and other exotics. The consequences can be seen in the numerous sanctuaries—some for real, some in name only—that have popped up around the country. At the more luxurious end of the spectrum is the Carnivore Preservation Trust (CPT), a spreading expanse of woodland dotted with spacious enclosures, nestled on a remote country road in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Vultures swoop overhead in the humid southern air, searching for scraps of meat, as keepers rove around the site, tossing chunks of goat meat and dead chickens—rejects donated by a local meatpacking plant—over the high fences of the enclosures to the thirteen pacing tigers. Pam Fulk, executive director of the CPT, says the cats were found dumped in parking lots, deserted in trailers, or tethered half-starved at a junkyard where passersby could pose. “When they're cubs, they're cute, they're cuddly,” says Fulk. But at the critical age of six months, many are abandoned or killed.
[media:node/974 vertical full]Private tiger owners often claim that by rescuing these forsaken felines, they are preserving them from extinction. It's an argument that makes little sense to wildlife ecologist Ron Tilson, director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo and the coordinator of the Tiger Species Survival Plan, a breeding program designed to maintain genetic diversity among zoo tigers in America by mating only the most distantly related individuals with each other. Tilson argues that captive tigers are so inbred that they could not survive if released into their native habitat, as some people advocate. “They've lost a whole lot of genetic tools that may be real important to them and their offspring to survive—for example, resistance to certain kinds of diseases, the ability to tolerate extreme heat or cold, the ability to know how to hunt and kill.”
Tilson also emphasizes the importance of protecting wild tigers, pointing to programs set up by the World Wildlife Fund and Wildlife Conservation Society to conserve vast swaths of landscape in Asia. He cites a successful scheme in the Russian Far East that rescued Siberian tigers from the brink of extinction. Twenty years ago, he says, just 150 tigers remained in the wild in Russia; in the last ten years, however, the tiger population there has doubled or even tripled, thanks to hard-nosed intervention efforts: aggressive patrolling for poachers' trucks inside protected areas, roadblocks, inspections, arrests, and stiff sentences.
In an attempt to cut down on such poaching, breeders in China have set up over a dozen “tiger farms,” housing about 4,000 felines. Parts harvested from those magnificent beasts are destined for the Asian medicinal market [see photograph below]. Raising a farmed tiger is about 250 times as expensive as hunting a wild one, however, so illegal trading remains alluring to poverty-stricken poachers—especially as it is impossible to distinguish farmed tiger organs from those illicitly obtained.
Could the inbreeding of large cats as pets in the U.S. be equally damaging to the individual felines—if not to the species at large? Because big cats in captivity are often accidentally or intentionally mated with close relatives, many of their offspring are born with genetic disorders—immune deficiencies, cleft palates, epilepsy, and kidney or heart problems. One recently deceased tiger housed at the CPT was so “mentally retarded,” says Pam Fulk, that he ignored an entire family of rabbits living under his den box.
As the disparate state laws in the United States continue to adjust and extend to cover exotic animals treated as pets, the need to redefine what it means to be wild may become more urgent. Breeders are not making that easy: they are crossing tigers and lions to produce ligers or tiglons, as well as crossing smaller wild cats with small breeds domesticated long ago. For example, the Bengal cat is a cross between an Asian leopard cat and a domestic cat; the striped “toyger,” the offspring of a Bengal cat and a domestic, resembles a miniature tiger; and a new “designer” breed, the $20,000-plus spotted Ashera, is a serval crossed with an Asian leopard cat and domestic breeds.
Not unlike those hybrids, captive and inbred tigers in the U.S. have clearly drifted far from their wild roots; they are both thousands of miles and many generations away from their native state. Certainly they should not be used as an excuse for complacency about the need to conserve a natural, native habitat for their wild-dwelling brethren—if anything, the opposite. For though exotic cat collectors may yearn for a taste of the wild in their daily lives, they also—paradoxically—squelch the spirit of these fierce predators. Even so the large cats, captive or otherwise, will never be completely domesticated, as Ellen Whitehouse, the executive director of Noah's Lost Ark, insists. “People live in this fantasy world where they think that the tigers and lions actually, truly love them.” She says, “They honestly cannot ever be tamed. They cannot be controlled. They're always wild. I have raised some here, and every single one of them would eat me.”