Big Cats Kept as Pets Across U.S., Despite Risk

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic Ultimate Explorer
Updated October 9, 2003

How would you feel if you discovered that a tiger is living next door in your suburban neighborhood? Or that a lion is roaming a nearby farm? The idea isn't so far-fetched. It's happening right across America.

The recent discovery of a 400-pound (180-kilogram) Siberian-Bengal tiger living in a New York apartment has prompted animal welfare organizations to call for a ban on private ownership of big cats. The tiger has been placed in an Ohio sanctuary.

As many as 15,000 exotic big cats may be living in neighborhoods and roadside zoos in the United States. In fact, the country may have more pet tigers than there are estimated to be remaining in their wild habitats in Asia, according to research done for the National Geographic Ultimate Explorer television documentary America's Big Cats in Crisis. Extracts from the program airs on MSNBC tonight, October 9, in a special presentation When Animals Attack, hosted by Lisa Ling.

Acquiring large cats as pets is legal and surprisingly easy in many states and counties in the United States. But most owners end up with much more than they bargained for—and it's the cats that often pay the price by being neglected or not properly accommodated and cared for.

Cuddly Cubs Grow Up

Exotic cats aren't usually available in pet shops, but they're offered for sale online and in newspaper and magazine ads. Sometimes a tiger cub sells for less than the cost of a purebred puppy—under U.S. $400.

Like puppies, big cats are quite appealing when they're young and playful. Unlike a puppy, however, a tiger, for example, can eat ten to 15 pounds (five to 7.5 kilograms) of raw meat a day and grow to more than 500 pounds (230 kilograms).

And when the owners become overwhelmed by the demands of their gigantic exotic pets, the animals often suffer.

For 23 years, Carol and Ron Asvestas have been taking in big cats from private owners who no longer want the animals. The couple runs the Wild Animal Orphanage in San Antonio, Texas. The refuge is a non-profit sanctuary, dedicated to giving lifetime care to unwanted, abused, and non-releasable wild and exotic animals.

Many of the animals that are taken to the orphanage have major ailments from being neglected or abused. They suffer bad nutrition, kidney ailments, and coat and hair problems.

About 90 big cats now live at the orphanage. But Asvestas wishes she were out of business. She wants to end private ownership of big cats so that sanctuaries like hers will no longer need to rescue animals from poor living conditions.

In her view, even well-meaning owners fall well short of meeting the animals' needs.

Continued on Next Page >>


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