Photos of fat Siberian tigers at a Chinese tiger park have recently been making the rounds on social media. The tigers don't just look a little pudgy — they look dangerously obese, Chris Draper, associate director of animal welfare and care at the Born Free Foundation, told The Dodo.
Yet many media outlets are promoting the photos are funny or cute, when the situation is much more serious than that, according to Draper.
"It was like they were almost being circulated for comedic effect, and it's only secondarily that people are starting to cotton on [to] what the actual problem is being displayed in the pictures," Draper said.
There are actually several problems with these photos, which were taken at the Siberian Tiger Park in Harbin City, China, according to Draper. The most obvious issue is that these animals are being fed way too much, and this, in turn, leads to other issues.
"I've never seen tigers overfed to that degree," Draper said. "While that might not create an immediate problem for them, it would restrict their movement, give them problems with their joints and their limbs, feet and their ability to walk. They'd also have problems interacting with each other. There'd be stress and strain on their physiology, just as being obese does in humans."
It appears that visitors are doing most of the feeding, according to some reports. Not only that, but visitors are reportedly feeding the tigers live chickens.
"If this facility is allowing live feeding, where people can buy a chicken and throw it them, it's incredibly cruel and very unethical," he said. "I don't know if it happens in this facility, but it certainly happens in some facilities in China. It's a visitor attraction. Sometimes it's not just chickens — it's goats and cattle.
Draper is also concerned about something else — the tigers' living arrangements.
"The pictures I saw indicated that large numbers of tigers are being kept together, which is a pretty unnatural situation," Draper said. "Tigers are solitary animals. When you keep them in groups, you're going to end up with a pretty high-stress environment."
With so many tigers kept in a confined space, there would also be few opportunities for exercise, which could exacerbate the health issues related to obesity.
"If they're denied the opportunity to work for their food, as they would in the wild by foraging and hunting, you inevitably end up with underdeveloped muscles and deposition of fat," Draper said. "It's kind of like couch potato syndrome."
This tiger park isn't the first facility in the country to treat animals badly. In January, a disturbing video emerged of people tying a tiger down to a table at Chinese circus so people could sit on the animal and take photos. At a Chinese zoo, circus performers were caught cruelly dragging a bear across a stage.
But before people start pointing fingers at China, Draper is quick to point out that many other countries do similar things. "This is a universal problem," Draper said. "I could go to facilities in North America and Europe and zoos and find this — perhaps not to the same degree, but I'd certainly find overweight cats, or overweight elephants."
Draper hopes that public outrage will urge the park to take better care of the tigers.
"They need to put an end to this, and get some proper advice on nutrition, feeding and behavior, and how to keep their animals better," Draper said. "And potential visitors to parks in China and the rest of the world need to just stop and think — what is the entertainment value in seeing these fairly grotesque tigers? It should provoke nothing but pity."
To help tigers — as well as bears, lions, monkeys, elephants and other circuses animals — you can sign this petition. You can also support investigations of circuses and similar facilities by making a donation to the Born Free Foundation.