Lion cubs wrapped snugly in baby blankets, suckling on bottles held by handlers. Baby tigers prancing around on leashes, playing catch with small balls and stuffed animals. Adult cats nuzzling with the public as they are stroked behind the ears or on the head. Why not take a photograph with these adorable, albeit wild animals? Of course, it would make for an once-in-a-lifetime experience and a great family photo.
What could be safer? What could go wrong?
Just ask the family and friends of Haley Hilderbrand. In 2005, Haley was a bright young high school senior, busy planning for her future, filled with possibility and hope. The Kansas teenager, who was described by classmates as having a "zeal for life," was fascinated with tigers. So, it seemed only natural that Haley pose for her senior photo with a Siberian Tiger, the great and wondrous beast that she loved so much.
Beaming with excitement and I'm sure some apprehension, Haley posed next to the tiger, who had been in dozens of photos like this in the past. In an instant and without provocation, the tiger snapped; he lunged at Haley and delivered a mortal bite. In a few short hours, 17-year old Haley would die of her wounds and the seven-year-old tiger would be euthanized.
Everyone was shocked. The tiger was docile, nurtured from a young age to tolerate human interaction. The "sanctuary" where the incident occurred had no history of such events. No one could have seen this coming. But they could have, and someone should have.
Lions and tigers are dangerous wild animals. Even as cute little cubs, they are not like dogs or cats: they are born predators, with instincts to kill inherent to their very existence despite any level of training. Even when handled by qualified professionals, the utmost level of care must be and is taken to prevent accident, injury or worse.
Sadly, this tragedy could have and should have been prevented. And here in New York, I have introduced a bill, A.9004, that would ensure that no family suffers like Haley's has, because of the irresponsibility of sham wild animal sanctuaries. A.9004 would prevent direct contact between the public and big cats, such as lions and tigers. This bill, once it becomes law, will protect the unsuspecting public, and will also protect the animals, who are innocent victims of this profit-driven industry.
Though the owner of the Kansas outfit where Haley was killed billed itself a sanctuary, wild animal farms like it provide anything but refuge for the big cats and other exotic animals in their care.
Big cats raised at these self-styled sanctuaries, many located right here in New York State, separate the cubs from their mothers at a very young age to ensure that aggressive and predatory behavior is not learned. After the separation, many cats are beaten into submission by their handlers. The big cats are kept in deplorable, cruel and inhumane enclosures, often filthy and far too small to accommodate their needs. The do not receive the exercise or stimulation appropriate to their size and intelligence and spend their lives being unnaturally and inappropriately handled by humans.
Any reputable wild animal sanctuary knows that the public has no business getting up close and personal with wild cats. Education and conservation efforts, the core mission of sanctuaries and rescues, can be easily and simply accomplished from behind the protection of enclosures that keep the public well out of harm's reach.
The roadside zoos that allow one to take photos or cuddle with big cats and other wild animals put their own profit above the health and safety of the people and the animals, with potentially disastrous consequence. They must be put to a stop.
For generations and across cultures, there are stories of great men, snake charmers and beast masters, who can control wild animals with a song or a gaze. This notion that humans can control wild animals and bend them to their will is rooted in a dangerous machismo, so clearly borne out by tragedies like Haley's.
While it is clear that no one can control wild animals, we can control circumstances. By passing my bill, A.9004, New York State has an opportunity to prevent the circumstances that give rise to injury and death, by preventing the public's direct contact with big cats.