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Big cats on a short leash

Many new owners are quickly overwhelmed by their exotic pets, and then, a cycle of mistreatment often follows.

By David HolmstromStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 3, 2000


Joe Parker points to Bubba, one of his bushy-maned lions resting peacefully in the sun in a large, outdoor enclosure. "Bubba spent a few years of his life in a crack house in Cincinnati chained by the neck," Mr. Parker says.

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Minutes later, Bubba sends out a thundering, deep-throated roar that moves through the trees and across the roofs of nearby houses like an express train. Bubba's industrial-strength voice stakes out his territory, a reminder to the other 66 lions, tigers, leopards, panthers, and cougars nearby that despite chain link fences between them, he rules.

But Bubba really doesn't rule at all anymore.

In fact, he and the other big cats in this self-described 40-acre animal sanctuary known as Tiger Haven are for the most part simply fortunate to be alive and well-fed.

Tiger Haven saved the cats from the plight of most captive-bred big cats in the United States. When they are old or in the way, few people want them, and even fewer want to take care of them. "Bubba, and many of the other cats, arrived here unwanted and abused," says Parker.

The extent of abuse among many of the estimated 5,000 to 9,000 big cats in captivity in the US, is in the open now. Journalists have uncovered widespread exploitation and abuse of big cats in zoos, traveling circuses, roadside zoos, and in suburban backyards where big cats live as caged "trophies." And each year, many children and adults are tragically attacked by big cats who remain untamed and unpredictable carnivores despite years of interacting with people.

Marginally protected by the federal Animal Welfare Act, and subject to ever-changing state and local laws, or no laws, many cats become tangled in mistreatment from birth to death. As documented in journalist Alan Green's recent book, "Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species," many zoos sell grown cats as "surplus." (reviewed Oct. 30, '99)

Mr. Green cited an American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) newsletter noting that surplus zoo animals are bought legally by circuses, breeders, dealers, or exhibitors. In turn, the new owners display, trade, auction, or often breed the animals for quick sales to private owners.

Some zoos try to minimize the flow of animals into unknown hands, but because of a lack of local enforcement and sheer numbers, animals often disappear despite the best intentions of officials.

"I've been here at the Minnesota zoo for 16 years," says Ronald Tilson, director of conservation at the zoo, and coordinator of the AZA's Tiger Species Survival Plan, "and we never placed an animal unless we had someone from our facility inspect the site.... We do surplus our tigers and for the most part I think [they] stay with zoos until they die. I can't say for sure that no tigers from AZA's Species Survival Plan have never shown up at a roadside facility. Once we surplus an animal I am not obligated to follow it."

Many lions and tigers, as well as bears or primates, end up in roadside zoos, or pseudo sanctuaries that exploit the animals in the name of the Endangered Species Act. Some are sold in animal auctions. Others are killed in clandestine "canned" (or fixed) hunts offered for thousands of dollars by hunting ranches even though many states have banned such hunts.

As cuddly cubs, tigers and lions first attract paying crowds at the best of zoos. Because few states forbid private ownership of big cats, breeders know that furry cubs can easily charm private buyers, too. Prices for tigers range from $700 to $5,500, and can be bought in some states from breeders licensed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

But many new owners misjudge the level of care and safety needed for an exotic wild animal that grows to weigh 450 pounds or more. As the cats become older, many go from owner to owner in a downward cycle of misery. Local authorities often have to intervene in severe cases with the help of the Humane Society, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), or other animal activist groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Sanctuaries, like Tiger Haven, will accept the unwanted animal, or rarely, an abused animal can be euthanized at a veterinarian's recommendation.

Jennifer O'Conner, a cruelty caseworker with PETA, say she had 400 requests last year from people wanting to find a place for their big cats. "Usually, they are embarrassed," she says, "because they didn't fully realize that cute cubs become aggressive cats in two months. There aren't many places to put these animals."