Big cats on a short leash

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

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.

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."

Legitimate nonprofit sanctuaries are proving to be the safest and healthiest last resort for unwanted big cats. But some self-described sanctuaries, while improving animal living conditions, simply continue the exploitation. "They do a rescue," says Lynn Cuny, past president of The Association of Sanctuaries (TAOS), and director of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation near San Antonio, Texas, "and they get publicity, donations, and credibility. The public is misinformed because they think a tiger in a 6 by 6 cage in Louisiana is not good, but an 8 by 8 cage in North Carolina is OK. And some of these operations breed and sell out the back door."

TAOS, founded in 1992, now has 36 accredited members adhering to strict rules, including no breeding or animals on commercial display. Animals are supposed to roam, roar, eat, and bask in the sun.

Recently, the USDA became so concerned about big cat abuse in the hands of untrained private owners that it publicly discouraged it. "I never thought they would take such a strong stance outside their regulatory role," says Ms. O'Conner. "There is not one reason for any private citizen to keep one of these animals as a pet."

Breeders and owners disagree, arguing that the issues are hardly black and white. Cynthia Carper, a licensed big-cat breeder in southern Ohio, says, "Cats aren't making it in the wild. Countries that are having trouble putting food in the bellies of their people aren't interested in saving tigers. I'd rather my future grandchildren be able to say, "I actually saw a tiger here," and not have go to a book to see a picture of one, like a carrier pigeon."

Such rationale sends animal activists into orbit. "This creates a situation where you are breeding wild animals with the purpose of putting them into the hands of the public," says Ms. Cuny. "When a cub is sold by a breeder, she can control who it is sold to, but she does not control what happens to the animal." Despite what some breeders insist, lions and tigers circulating in the US pet trade are not endangered species caught in the same dilemma as the dwindling numbers in Asia and Africa. In the captive world, inbreeding occurs. Lack of managed care, especially genetic management, has clouded the lines of big cats as the numbers have risen.

But endangered or not, big cats are wild in temperament and habits, even though they are generations removed from jungles and savannahs. Standing near Bubba at Tiger Haven, Parker says he spends $6,000 a month on meat. "Tigers aren't like dogs in recognizing that we give them their food," he says. "All food belongs to the tiger. We just happen to have it at that moment of feeding. It belongs to them. What are we doing with it?"

Sanctuaries sometimes have to turn to unique ways to raise funds to stay ahead of operating and maintenance costs. For Tiger Haven, Parker operated a bingo parlor for 2 1/2 years, raising more than $2 million until the state ruled it illegal. In l989, he was a prosecution witness in a joint federal/state probe of alleged corruption of bingo in Tennessee. He was accused of skimming proceeds in an action unrelated to Tiger Haven.

"If you love your animals and are doing the best you can for them in a sanctuary, " says Richard Farinato, director of Captive Wildlife Protection of the Humane Society of the United States, "you keep yourself squeaky clean to not risk the animals you profess to love."

When this reporter visited Tiger Haven unannounced and toured the grounds at Parker's invitation, all the animals were clean, healthy, and for the most part kept in large enclosures. "We are not open to the public," he says. "We don't do performances, and we don't breed."

A stroll through Tiger Haven triggers an underlying question: Why do big cats generate such increasing legal and illegal activity? Parker thinks the US is "Disneyized" into believing "we can be comrades" with big cats.

Cuny thinks it's a case of a consumer society misunderstanding the natural world. "We are a society that lives for consumption and ownership," she says. "And with nature, in the strangest way, we want it in our backyard, but not out of respect. So people say, 'look at this tiger.' It's incredible. I've got to have one, like a new Mercedes. Our culture tells us to own everything, including tigers."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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