Tigers come ... and go
A review of data supplied by the USDA to The Dodo showed some 2,000 tigers living in USDA-accredited facilities across the country. According to Tigers in America, a captive tiger monitoring group, there are some 7,000 captive tigers in the U.S., including those in zoos, sanctuaries and private ownership. Wathne says approximately 84 U.S. facilities provide public handling of tigers cubs - click here to read the landmark petition filed by HSUS, Born Free, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and other groups that would like the public handling of cubs banned.
At PTP facilities, the tiger cubs are handled by the public when they are very young - approximately 8 to 12 weeks, although there's no regulation restricting that time period, says Tanya Espinosa, public relations specialist at USDA. "Big cats younger than 8 weeks are more fragile and susceptible to disease and overhandling, and big cats older than 12 weeks begin to be too big and active to be safely handled by the public," she explains. The USDA inspects facilities on average once a year, says Espinosa, but this isn't a requirement. However, she adds, "Any handling of big cats younger than 8 weeks or older than 12 weeks will be much more highly scrutinized by our inspectors."
What happens, then, when a tiger reaches 12 weeks, or after he's lost his public appeal? Where does he go?
That's up to the facility, Espinosa answers. She adds that the Animal Welfare Act requires that facilities maintain records of who obtains the animal, "and the inspectors check those records during the inspection process."
And that is pretty much it.
"No agency, either state or federal, tracks all big cats," confirms Laury Parramore, public affairs officer at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Some big cats, she explains, fall under the jurisdiction of FWS, and others fall under the USDA/APHIS.
This broken system of oversight means that the future for many tigers is speculative: "A few of [the tigers] might stay at the facilities that use them in PTP, and if that's the case, they are usually shunted off into a concrete and chain-link type enclosure where they spend the remaining years of their long lives," says Wathne. Tigers typically live 10 to 12 years in captivity, according to Baskin. It costs thousands of dollars a year to feed them.
Baskin says many tigers land at unaccredited zoos, which are frequently cited by the USDA for inadequate veterinary care and housing. But some end up in even more dire situations: One former PTP cub, she found, was sent to a facility that previously euthanized a cub by slitting its throat. Another former PTP cub was sent to a facility that had previously owned tigers "which were missing toes and feet from botched declaw jobs, and that one had been hit so hard in the eye that part of her skull had to be removed."
Some of the tigers are simply recycled into the system and used to breed more babies.
During the the HSUS investigation at Tiger Safari (along with the troubled Natural Bridge Zoo in Virginia), for example, 12 tigers who were born at both facilities were sent to The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. T.I.G.E.R.S is another well known PTP facility that often comes under fire from animal welfare advocates often associated with breeding cubs for PTP.
Baskin says that in order for PTP facilities to stay afloat, they must have a steady, replenished flow of young tiger cubs. Big Cat Rescue estimates that more than 200 tiger cubs are born in facilities each year, "based on the images we find on Facebook, YouTube and Flickr."
Another concern of advocates is that the tigers may be killed and their parts sold into the illegal wildlife trade.
However, this has yet to be buoyed by much data thus far. TRAFFIC produced a report in 2008 on the captive tiger trade in the U.S., and found no evidence that parts or products from U.S. captive tigers were entering the global trade.
And Tim Van Norman, chief of the branch of permits in the Division of Management Authority at FWS says, "Within the U.S., I am not aware of any evidence to show that captive-bred tigers were being traded or killed for the black market. That is not to say it has not or would not happen, just that I have seen nothing specific. "
However, the TRAFFIC report also noted that because there is a lack of oversight in the U.S. of the captive tiger industry, U.S. tigers could be vulnerable to the black market if tiger farming in China, especially, became legalized.
In fact, according to some experts, the breeding of tigers in China is already thriving.
Some former PTP tigers ultimately land at a legitimate sanctuary, like Big Cat Rescue or The Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minnesota.
But these are the "lucky" ones, stresses Tammy Thies, founder and executive director of The Wildcat Sanctuary.
Wildcat is home to 10 captive tigers, who still show signs of physical or emotional abuse from life in PTP, she says.
WILDCAT SANCTUARY'S NIKITA