The Thai authorities had seen enough. The discovery of 60 dead tiger cubs—frozen or preserved in jars—at a so-called tiger sanctuary operated by Buddhist monks in Thailand sparked worldwide outrage, and pressure on the government was mounting to do something. In recent days, authorities did take action, shutting down the operation and removing 137 live tigers and more than 1,600 illegal items made from tiger parts. Several people were arrested on suspicion of wildlife trafficking. Under the guise of a rescue and conservation organization, the Tiger Temple served as a popular tourist attraction where, for a fee, members of the public were allowed to walk among a collection of chained tigers as well as pet and handle both adult and infant tigers.
It was especially bizarre that monks could run such an operation, but was this case just a very strange “one-off”? Unfortunately not. Here in the United States, we too have had a sort of tiger mania, and it’s been something of a regulatory free-for-all. As far back as 2003, The HSUS worked with the California Fish and Game Commission to help rescue 54 severely neglected and malnourished big cats from a property. More than 90 tigers were also found dead and the owner was convicted on 56 counts, including 14 felonies.
In October 2011, a deranged owner of exotic animals released 50 of them into the community – including 18 tigers – in Zanesville, Ohio. The man, who had just been released from prison, took his own life after throwing open the gates of his private menagerie, putting the animals and people at risk. Sheriff’s deputies felt they had no choice and shot the animals roaming in a populated community, in a grisly scene that few of us will ever forget.
The U.S. tiger breeding industry exists solely to offer the public an opportunity to pet, hold, feed, play with, and even swim with tiger cubs. In our undercover investigations of two of these operations in 2014, we discovered shocking abuses. The cubs were punched, slapped, dragged, and choked. The cubs at Natural Bridge Zoo in Virginia were never seen by a veterinarian despite the fact that they had bloody diarrhea from a parasitic infection. Cubs at Tiger Safari in Oklahoma suffered from ringworm but were still handled by hundreds of people. One of the most troubling things we learned from these investigations is that excessive hunger was used to control the cubs during photo ops with the public and they were also fed a nutritionally deficient diet.
Tiger cubs are typically discarded once they grow too large for public contact. Some are warehoused in small cages, sold to circuses, or used to breed more tigers for public handling. Some die prematurely, such as Maximus and Sarabi, the two cubs used for public handling during our investigation at Tiger Safari. Both died before their second birthdays. Discarded cubs may end up in the pet trade. Last September, an abandoned, declawed tiger cub was found wandering through a neighborhood in California. And last April, a pet tiger cub escaped and was discovered hiding in some bushes in a Texas neighborhood.
Two federal agencies have recently taken steps to crack down on these cottage tiger-abuse industries. Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a final regulation closing a regulatory loophole that exempted generic (mixed-breed) tigers from oversight. Generic tigers are no longer exempt from permitting requirements and as a result, it will be much harder for roadside zoos and breeders to engage in commercial activities with captive tigers. In response to a legal petition drafted by The HSUS, the USDA issued guidance to make clear that allowing the public to handle tiger cubs four weeks of age or younger violates the Animal Welfare Act because these vulnerable infants are unable to regulate their body temperature and they lack a fully functioning immune system to fight off disease and infection. To its credit, one roadside zoo in Alabama announced it was discontinuing tiger cub photo ops as a result of the USDA’s action.
These regulatory actions may reduce the U.S. tiger trade, but more work needs to be done to put a stop to it. A number of facilities continue to offer tiger and lion cub photo ops. We must be vigilant in educating the public not to patronize these attractions, and in urging the USDA to prohibit all public contact with big cat cubs, regardless of age.