It is a story that defies imagination and, as the mother of a high schooler, makes me cringe. A tiger is brought into a high school prom, in a cage barely large enough to hold the massive animal. The tiger, surrounded by pounding music, screaming teenagers and dancers with fiery torches, paces frantically in the cage. There are other wild animals present too – a lemur and a fennec fox among them. Wild birds in cages are placed on tables as centerpieces.
Shockingly, all of this was done with the blessing of school administrators, apparently unconcerned with issues of animal welfare or the safety of the young people in their charge.
This incident has generated a great deal of public outrage and there is no question that the administrators at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami showed extremely poor judgement in bringing wild animals into a school event. This could have led to tragic consequences had an animal escaped or someone had stuck a hand in the tiger’s cage.
This strange incident also highlights a much larger problem that state and federal officials have failed to address: the lack of laws banning exotic animal acts. These operations callously exploit the animals in their care, often keep them in inhumane conditions and place them in situations that cause risk to them and to human beings.
The Humane Society of the United States and a coalition of other organizations filed a legal petition in 2012 with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prohibit close encounters with dangerous wild animals, such as big cats, bears and primates. We are still awaiting action on that petition, and the Miami high school incident has become just the latest case in point for the value of such action on the part of the government.
Some states have moved to limit contact with wild animals. New York State banned selfies with big cats in 2014, because of safety and humane concerns. In 2006, Kansas banned close encounters with big cats after a high school senior was mauled to death by a tiger during a photo op.
Florida legislators and other states should not wait for a tragedy before taking action.
The school in this case said the tiger was provided by an exhibitor approved and permitted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. Florida has laws governing exotic animals but they involve a costly, labor-intensive regulatory system that hasn’t worked well. In fact, Florida has one of the worst records of any state of incidents involving dangerous wild animals.
In Florida, in 2016 alone:
- A macaque bit a child during a public handling session at the Dade City Zoo.
- A tiger attacked a trainer during a show in front of horrified children at a Pensacola fair.
- A woman leaving her Miami home was chased and repeatedly bitten by a lemur, thought to be an escaped pet.
- An adult tiger escaped from an enclosure at a roadside menagerie in Fort Walton Beach while children were attending the facility’s camp program.
- A nine-foot anaconda snake lurched at two dogs in a Melbourne resident’s backyard.
- A man in the city of Parker was hospitalized after he was bitten by his pet cobra.
Unfortunately, Florida officials have regularly deferred to pressure from the exotic pet industry, rather than enacting common sense solutions to ensure animal welfare, safeguard the public and protect the environment. We’ve got to change that, and we’ve got to change their minds. This incident, and the public outrage it has caused, is one more wake-up call about an issue that we simply need to address directly. A majority of Americans do not want wild animals used in such an improper way; it’s high time our laws catch up to that sentiment.