Today is International Tiger Day, and there’s no better time to take note of a sobering and perplexing figure: there are approximately double the number of tigers living in captivity in the United States than exist in the wild. This magnificent species has lost at least 50 percent of its habitat since the 1990s and the total wild population has dwindled to about 3,500 tigers remaining across Asia. But here in the U.S., an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 of these powerful carnivores are kept in basements, backyard menageries, and shoddy roadside zoos for commercial use and display, or personal fancy.
JP Bonnelly/The HSUS
Alex was part of an exotic pet rescue in Kansas
He is happy and safe and now resides at
Black Beauty Ranch.
This burgeoning captive tiger population continues to grow primarily because of a network of exhibition facilities that overbreed exotic animals to produce a steady supply of infant cubs for lucrative photo-ops and interactive experiences sold to members of the public. HSUS undercover investigations have revealed the physical abuse and nutritional deprivation these cubs suffer after they’re pulled from their moms immediately after birth to be “trained” for human contact. That’s why in 2012 The HSUS and a coalition of animal protection and conservation organizations filed a legal petition seeking to amend the Animal Welfare Act regulations to explicitly prohibit licensed exhibitors from allowing members of the public to have direct contact or unsafe close contact with tigers or other big cats, bears, or primates, regardless of the age of the animal.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture took preliminary action in response to this petition, issuing a formal notice that it is a violation of federal law to expose newborn exotic cats to public handling, since these vulnerable animals have underdeveloped immune systems and “should be housed with their mother for as long as possible after birth to promote good health.” Now, USDA has opened a comment period to gather additional information to support further regulatory action—you can take action here to voice your support for putting an end to the use of tigers of any age (or other dangerous wild animals) for this unsafe and inhumane practice.
At a time when wild tigers are mercilessly poached for their bones, meat, claws, teeth, and genitals, it is incomprehensible that we continue to allow tigers to be exploited domestically just for the thrill. This exploitation is not only inhumane and unsafe, but it puts an enormous financial burden on nonprofit organizations and wildlife sanctuaries, such as our affiliated Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, which built state-of-the art enclosures to provide high-quality care to three tigers rescued from private menageries (you can watch a video here of one of the three, Alex, enjoying enrichment provided by his caregivers). Why should the rest of society have to pay for the actions of a few reckless individuals and commercial carnies who pose such a threat to public safety and animal welfare?
There’s much more that can be done to protect wild tigers here and around the world. HSLF and our coalition partners with Save Endangered Animals-Oregon just this week qualified a ballot measure for the November election to eliminate the in-state market in Oregon for tiger parts and other products of endangered species. This follows a successful ballot measure we supported last year in Washington state cracking down on wildlife trafficking and drying up demand for the parts of tigers, lions, elephants, rhinos, and other magnificent creatures. The HSUS and Humane Society International joined 43 other organizations to call on countries to end the tiger trade and phase out tiger farms. And HSI is working to reduce international demand for tiger products, releasing a children’s book about tigers and the issues that threaten their survival, produced in partnership with the Vietnamese government. The model for the book is a similar project that helped reduce demand for rhino horn by 33 percent in one year.
The United States has a critical role to play in the global effort to save this iconic species from extinction, and we must lead by example. Until our federal government takes decisive action to stop the frivolous breeding and domestic trade of tigers, it will continue to impede our ability to urge Asian tiger range countries to take action to do the same. Later this summer at the United Nations CITES Conference of the Parties meeting in South Africa, there will be opportunity to take action to address the abuse of captive tigers in American roadside zoos and Chinese tiger farms in an effort to ensure that the global captive population of tigers is managed to promote the conservation of the species and to protect the welfare of the individual tigers.