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Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Feds Tackle the Tiger Trade

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today finalized a rule eliminating a loophole in the Endangered Species Act regulations that has produced a crisis involving captive tigers across the nation over the past two decades. The elimination of the so-called “generic tiger exemption” will substantially increase oversight of captive tigers, kept in inhumane conditions at shoddy roadside zoos, funneled into the exotic pet trade, and dragged to shopping malls and fairs for photo ops and special events.

JP Bonnelly/The HSUS
Alex was part of an exotic pet rescue in Kansas at a
facility that took advantage of this loophole. Alex is
happy and safe and now resides at Black Beauty Ranch.

Until now, tigers of unknown or mixed lineage, including thousands of tigers at roadside zoos and private menageries, were not subject to the same permit application and recordkeeping requirements as the approximately 280 tigers managed for genetic diversity by zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. That meant people could breed, trade, and otherwise use tigers without applying for a permit and undergoing scientific scrutiny, and the trade in generic tigers was left virtually unregulated.

Only about 3,200 tigers are left in the wild, but American roadside zoos, menageries, and exotic pet owners keep nearly twice that number. These facilities threaten the safety of our communities and impose an enormous financial burden on taxpayers, government agencies, and nonprofit sanctuaries like the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Texas and Big Cat Rescue in Florida, which often have to rescue tigers from deplorable conditions. The new rule will help ensure that only properly accredited facilities engaged in legitimate conservation activities can breed and trade tigers, by requiring an ESA permit for such activities regardless of the tiger’s genetic lineage.

We benefited from the efforts of Republican and Democratic members of Congress who urged the White House to finalize the generic tiger rule. Bipartisan groups of lawmakers in both the House and Senate helped to push the issue forward, led by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., and Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Dick Blumenthal, D-Conn.

In another step forward for tigers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued guidance to its inspectors to start cracking down on public contact with infant tiger cubs and other exotic cats at exhibition facilities licensed under the Animal Welfare Act. While the policy only deals with cats four weeks of age or younger, we will continue to urge USDA to do more on this issue and to explicitly prohibit public contact with tiger cubs of any age, along with other dangerous captive wildlife.

Conservation efforts for wild tigers are undermined by the exploitation of captive tigers. Those who engage in these activities misrepresent tigers’ conservation status to the public and potentially even provide a supply of tiger parts for illegal international trade. Individual tigers also suffer tremendously at these unqualified facilities, where they are routinely bred to produce a steady supply of cubs for unsafe photographic opportunities and interactive experiences with paying customers.

The HSUS found terrible abuse during three undercover investigations conducted at such pay-to-play exhibits in the last five years. At the G.W. Exotic Animal Park (currently home to nearly 100 tigers) a juvenile tiger pounced on a young child and an investigator documented five tiger deaths in one month. At the Natural Bridge Zoo tiger cubs were deprived of food to make them compliant for bottle-feeding sessions and were punched and smacked when they exhibited normal play behavior. At Tiger Safari infant tiger cubs were deprived of essential maternal care, and both of the tiger cubs used for excessive public handling during that investigation died when they were less than two years of age.

These multi-pronged efforts to protect tigers have been years in the making, and a coalition of groups, including The HSUS and The Fund for Animals, submitted rulemaking petitions for the actions involved. The Obama administration has made positive strides with these important protections to end the exploitation of tigers, and we urge the relevant federal agencies to further protect animal welfare and public safety by cracking down on this inhumane and reckless trade.

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