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.

"I don't think anybody sets out to abuse or neglect an exotic animal," she said, "but they simply don't realize the responsibility they take on and the effect it has on the animal's well-being when they are cooped up in cages. And that is where the [animals] will eventually end up—in cages."

In her line of work, Asvestas has seen some bad situations. "I've witnessed animals eating other animals through starvation. I've witnessed animals chewing other animals' ears off because of being in cramped quarters. I've witnessed animals that have lived in filth for months on end. And I mean filth. I'm not talking dirty cage. I'm talking two feet of feces and urine. It's appalling," Azvestas said on the Ultimate Explorer documentary.

Shirley Minshew, The International Fund for Animal Welfare's (IFAW) emergency relief director for North America, helps arrange the rescue of big cats that have been owned and kept by individuals. In some cases the animals have been abused and kept in horrid conditions. Yet even caring owners are not always able to meet the cats' needs, Minshew said.

"Look at a normal housecat, even one confined to inside the house," she said. "Look at its size and the size of its comparable surroundings, then look at a lion or a tiger in an eight-by-eight-foot or even a 12-by-12-foot enclosure. We wouldn't think of getting a cat and just shutting it up in a travel kennel or a small box, so why would we do that to an animal that is this much more powerful?"

More Private Ownership

"America's zoos, and to some extent, circuses are largely responsible for today's big cat explosion," the Ultimate Explorer documentary noted. "Twenty-five years ago, zoos freely bred the animals in order to have a steady supply of cute cubs to display. But over-breeding led to an overabundance of big cats." According to the documentary, for every lion and tiger in a zoo, there may be as many as 10 privately owned.

Private breeders cater to a booming trade in exotic pets. The breeders are allowed to operate after passing an inspection and paying a fee to be issued a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Who would want to own a tiger as a pet? "I've known a variety of people who want to own these as pets," said Asvestas.

People who own pet big cats include low-income families, high-income families, and teenagers who want them as graduation presents, she said. "It's an ego thing. It's great to be able to walk down the street with a tiger cub on a leash. It creates attention." Restrictions vary by state: As of June 2002, 19 states ban private ownership of big cats, 15 require only a license or permit, and the remaining 16 have no regulations at all, Ultimate Explorer established.

Lack of uniform federal regulation is a matter of ongoing debate, because these exotic animals have wild instincts that are not likely to be diminished through captivity or training. "I don't think you can breed instinct out of a tiger," said Kathy Quigley, a veterinarian and tiger expert who spent years with the Hornocker Wildlife Institute's conservation project to protect Siberian tigers.

"I think you can control it, by training them. But that tiger in a given situation where it's instinct is going to override your training—somebody is going to get hurt. This is a wild animal, not a domestic animal," Quigley said.

Ultimate Explorer's researchers found dozens of cases reported in the U.S. media of people being killed or mauled by their pet big cats. In at least one situation it was reported that an owner was partially eaten.

Some people make the case for private ownership of big cats on the grounds that it can encourage breeding and thereby benefit some species whose status in the wild is endangered.

A century ago an estimated 100,000 tigers roamed Asia. Today their numbers have been seriously depleted—only about 5,000 to 7,000 are thought to remain in the wild, National Geographic magazine reported in its December 1997 issue. Eight sub-species of tigers once inhabited an area that stretched from the Middle East to the Pacific. Today, logging, human population growth, and poaching have reduced the wild tiger numbers. Two sub-species no longer exist in the wild.

But as wild tiger numbers are dwindling, so the population of big cats in captivity is soaring. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) investigator Jim Boller told Ultimate Explorer he never knew how big the problem was until he came to Texas. "I've seen more big cats in the last two years here in Texas than I have seen in 15 years around the country," he said.

Boller estimates there may be as many as 400 to 500 lions, tigers, and other big cats in the Houston area alone.

"These animals are not getting adequately fed. We're coming across animals that are skinny. They have hair loss, they have other metabolic problems, kidney problems, and in some cases kidney failure due to the nutrition that their well-meaning owners are providing them," Boller said.

Placing the big cats into zoos is not a solution. Most zoos do not accept animals without a clear genetic background—something the privately bred cats generally lack—and captive-bred cats are not returned to the wild.

"Anybody who thinks that they are doing these animals a favor by allowing them to breed to save an endangered species is misguided, because they will just become hundreds more animals living their lives in cages," said IFAW's Minshew.

"These animals are brought into the world for only one reason," Minshew said, "and that's greed."

She is concerned that the problem will grow unless new regulations are introduced or other action is taken to restrict the trend.

"Unless something is done to stop it," she said,"it will just continue to get worse, and the sanctuaries aren't going to be able to take in all these animals. And what happens then?"

This is not just an animal problem, Asvestas said. "This is a problem that affects people. When a six-year-old child gets killed by a tiger and two months later an eight-year-old boy gets an arm ripped off, that should be enough to say it's got to stop. But it goes on and on.

"These are animals that we brought into the world. They didn't ask to be here."

For related links and additional information:

Wild Animal Orphanage
IFAW: 22 Big Cats Get a Big Helping Hand
The Big Cats of Serenity Springs
Phoenix Exotic Wildlife Association

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