By Michael Markarian
There is a crisis with captive tigers across the nation, and the Obama administration must do something about it.
By some estimates there are more tigers living in the United States today than there are remaining in the wild in Asia, because of federal loopholes that encourage reckless overbreeding and public handling of the animals. These tigers are kept in inhumane conditions at shoddy roadside zoos, are funneled into the exotic pet trade, and even dragged to shopping malls and fairs for photo ops.
While tigers are endangered in the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently exempts mixed lineage or “generic” tigers from registration under its captive-bred wildlife regulations. Because of this lack of regulation the total number of tigers in our communities is unknown, and nearly all of them are held at unaccredited breeding facilities, substandard roadside zoos, pseudo-sanctuaries, traveling zoos, private menageries, and as personal pets.
The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a rule in 2011 to close the loophole and regulate generic tigers, but nearly four years later that rule is still languishing. It’s time for the administration to act and give these generic tigers the same legal protections as purebred tigers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, too, must prohibit the public from handling and having direct interaction with big cats, bears, and primates. In one of the most extreme cases of government being totally disconnected from the real world, the USDA has previously suggested that it’s acceptable for members of the public to hold and cuddle tiger cubs during a short window when the animals are between the ages of 8 and 12 weeks old.
This encourages the constant breeding of tigers so there’s a steady supply of infant cubs available for photos and interaction with the public at roadside zoos and shopping malls across the country. When the baby tigers grow up and become dangerous and difficult to handle, they’re dumped, with some ending up at sanctuaries and nonprofit animal welfare groups across the country that must then spend millions of dollars to care for them for up to 15 or 20 years. Far too many animals are in crisis because our laws still permit the private ownership and overbreeding of dangerous predators by reckless individuals—and it’s the rest of society, including government agencies and taxpayers, who have to clean up the mess.
In the last 24 years, four children have been killed and 66 have lost limbs or suffered other injuries in incidents involving captive big cats. Eighteen adults have been killed in similar incidents during that time, and many others have been mauled. To date there’ve been more than 330 recorded cases of dangerous interactions with big cats, with cases in almost every state since 1990.
The USDA has been considering a petition to close this dangerous loophole since 2012, but once again, it’s been years with no action. How many more tragedies will occur, and how many more millions of dollars will be spent caring for cast-off tigers, before the Obama Administration takes action? Closing the loopholes on generic tigers and public contact will make our communities safer, help animal welfare, and save taxpayers from footing the bill for this reckless trade.