9 min read

Sane Solutions to the Insanity of Keeping Big Cats

Sometimes I wonder if I'm insane. Is it crazy to expect people to respect tigers as dangerous wild animals who belong in the forests of India and not in close contact with humans-especially as "pets" or in captivity near people? There is an ongoing frightening list of dangerous actions with tigers that, quite frankly, leave me bewildered.

A tiger at Steve Irwin's Australian zoo attacked a zookeeper in January, causing puncture wounds to the man's hands and forehead. The zoo's response? Calling the tiger "cheeky" and explaining that he just got "hot and bothered." This transparent attempt to downplay a very serious situation masks the root of the problem. This tiger isn't "cheeky"; he's frustrated and miserable in captivity. Anyone would lash out if he or she was kept behind bars and gawked at every day. Not to mention, it's part of the tiger's innate predatory behavior.

Doc Antle, who runs a breeding and exhibition facility in South Carolina for big cats (where he infamously cross-breeds lions and tigers for public display), has applied for a permit to export 18 tigers to Mexico (ostensibly for use in a film, but likely to end up on public display and as photo props). This is dangerous to the unwitting public, who might want to get up close and personal with an animal who's hardwired to kill.

Floyd Mayweather, the successful but notoriously aggressive boxer, was recently photographed with a "pet" tiger. And, while I don't know if that animal has had her claws or teeth removed or filed down to reduce her level of danger, I can be certain that a fight between tiger and boxer is not going to go well for the champ. News outlets and blogs ran Mayweather's Instagram photo of the young tiger lying on a staircase and quoted him on his excitement at receiving such a unique gift, seeking page views at the expense of glamorizing cruelty.

When things go wrong (or perhaps as predicted), innocent tigers are either euthanized or confiscated and rehomed to a sanctuary for lifetime care. I recently had the pleasure of visiting Lions, Tigers, and Bears: a gorgeous wildlife sanctuary in San Diego, California run by Bobbi Brink, who received the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries Carole Noon Award for Sanctuary Excellence. Bobbi's facility provides accommodations for animals rescued from cruel private ownership, including leopards, tigers, lions, and bears. Her operation, like others around the country, is necessary to combat the reckless effects of both keeping big cats as pets and putting them on public display. The keeping and displaying of big cats is not only reckless because of the inhumane conditions in which the animals are kept, but also because of the threat to public health and safety (should any of these animals escape and/or attack). Sanctuaries such as these are needed because the keeping of exotic animals, especially big cats, continues unfettered across the country.

More than a decade ago, I was quite proud to have been involved in a legislative effort called the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, which was signed in 2003, to prohibit the interstate movement of big cats if they were destined for the pet trade. However, as is so often the case, the legislative progress for animals is incremental. While we were able to pass that law and can now verify that it has had an impact in reducing the wildlife trade in America, we also know that there is more to be done.

Born Free USA is involved in a new legislative effort to amend that law with a bill called the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would shut down private breeding, possession, or public interaction with these big cats. At a briefing in the United States Congress, the bill's sponsor, Congressman Walter Jones Jr., said, "there's no reason that the Congress cannot pass this bill and send it to President Obama." Agreed.

I have to admit that it strikes me that we live in an insane world: one where tigers are bred to be stuffed in cages in people's backyards, left on display, shipped to other countries for potentially dangerous interactions with people, or kept as pets by the rich and infamous as props to attract attention on social media.

We certainly need a dose of common sense in this world filled with such nonsense. We need to support sanctuaries that take in wild animals. We need to ensure that Congress does not ignore its responsibility to keep this nation safe and humane, and make sure the Big Cat Public Safety Act is signed into law expeditiously. And, we need to pledge that, from coast to coast in the next year, over the next decade, and for as long as it takes, we will work to reduce the number of big cats held in private hands and guarantee that no tiger, lion, leopard, cougar, or other big cat suffers or puts the public at risk.

Common sense, indeed.

Keep Wildlife in the Wild,