America Has a Tiger Problem And No One’s Sure How to Solve It

No one even knows how many of the big cats are in the United States

Tony the Tiger, a 550-pound Siberian-Bengal mix, lives in a cage at a Louisiana truck stop. (© FTTT)
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Clayton James Eller loved going to his aunt’s house in Millers Creek, North Carolina, where he got to visit Tigger, her 317-pound pet Bengal tiger. One December day in 2003, ten-year-old C.J. was shoveling snow near Tigger’s outdoor pen when the animal attacked him from an opening in the chain-link fence and dragged him under. C.J.’s uncle grabbed his rifle and shot the tiger, but the boy died before he reached the hospital.

Tiger attacks in the United States are always dramatic news—there were 27 reported between 1990 and 2006, with seven people and most of the tigers killed. But maulings aren’t the only problem arising from the perhaps surprising fact that there are more captive tigers in the U.S. than there are wild tigers on earth.

Conservationists estimate that about 3,200 wild tigers remain around the world, while there are some 5,000 tigers in captivity in the U.S., according to the World Wildlife Fund. Even that number is probably low, says Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary in Tampa, Florida, because reporting is “based on the honor system, and we’re dealing with a lot of people that are really dishonorable.” Edward J. Grace, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s deputy assistant director for law enforcement, estimates that the nation is home to more than 10,000 captive tigers. Only about 350 of those, says the WWF, are held in facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

For the thousands of tigers in private hands, from those in big-top circuses and roadside attractions to others in backyard dens, the regulations are inconsistent at best. Six states (North Carolina, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Nevada, Alabama and West Virginia) place no restrictions on owning a tiger; 14 states require a permit; and 30 states prohibit ownership, though in some of those states people have been known to flout the law, as in the famous case of the man who kept a tiger in his apartment in Harlem. 

One of the problems associated with these captive tigers, animal welfare advocates say, is that many of the creatures suffer. For example, the popular and stunningly beautiful white tigers—all descendants of a single, anomalous albino Bengal named Mohan, captured in 1951, and bred with his daughter—continue to be inbred with immediate family members to disabling effect; one frequent defect is severe strabismus, or crossed eyes, which hampers vision and coordination. Moreover, animal rescuers point out that many privately owned tigers live in deplorable conditions. Some tigers spend lifetimes in small, unsanitary enclosures. And wildlife advocates have accused tiger cub exhibitors of depriving the cats of sleep and exercise, and endangering both animals and people. One well-known captive animal is Tony the Tiger, a 550-pound Siberian-Bengal mix who has spent more than a decade in a cage at a truck stop in Louisiana. Baskin has been working with the Animal Legal Defense Fund to bring Tony to her sanctuary, but not everyone thinks his owner should be forced to send him. A Facebook group called “Keep Tony Where He Is” has more than 10,000 “Likes,” and Tony’s owner has called animal rights activists terrorists.

Some advocates argue that America’s other tiger problem, to put it bluntly, is hypocrisy, at least on the world stage. In China, a booming market for tiger parts has fueled the growth of legal “tiger farms,” where the animals are raised to be slaughtered for luxury décor (a tiger pelt can run tens of thousands of dollars) and pricey tiger-bone wine (up to $135 for a half-liter bottle). U.S. conservation groups and others have criticized the tiger farms both on humane grounds and for stoking demand for tigers—including poached wild animals. But Chinese officials dispute the claim that farmed tigers threaten animals in the wild, and, in any case, Americans have little credibility on the subject, given our own large but untallied population of neglected tigers and the patchwork of weak or nonexistent protections, according to J.A. Mills, a wildlife conservationist and author of the new book Blood of the Tiger. “U.S. tigers have a direct bearing on what China does,” she says, “and what China does has a direct bearing on whether wild tigers survive.” 

So some advocates are heartened that America is trying to get its regulatory act together. The Fish and Wildlife Service has long overseen buying and selling “pure” tiger subspecies (such as Bengals and Amurs) across state lines, but the agency has limited authority because most privately held tigers are mixed breeds; a 2011 move to expand the agency’s authority over all tigers is reportedly close to being approved. Even more sweeping is the proposed Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, which would formally restrict tiger ownership to facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. (A grandfather clause would allow unaccredited owners to keep their tigers as long as they register with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) The bipartisan bill was introduced in 2013 and may come up again in the new Congressional term. Some tiger owners and businesses feel the bill is overly restrictive, but proponents say it would go a long way toward closing the gap between what we say about the treatment of captive tigers and what we’re actually willing to do about it.

About Max Kutner
Max Kutner

Max Kutner was the editorial intern for Smithsonian. He is now a staff writer at Newsweek and has contributed to Boston magazine and other publications.

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