Far from the Forests of the Night

Tigers and other “exotics” have become hefty commodities in the U.S.

Private owners often cite such statistics as reasons for supporting a growing population of caged tigers. In captivity, large exotic cats breed easily as long as they are given a steady supply of fresh meat and a minimum of space. The Animal Finders' Guide, a newsletter published eighteen times a year by Pat Hoctor, a former breeder in Prairie Creek, Indiana, shows that there is no shortage of both cubs and adults up for grabs in the U.S. A seller in Texas, for example, offers "free—two male tigers 2 1/2 years old, like women; one female tiger, 6 years old, likes men and women; cages with cats." Another advertisement, from a breeder in Oregon, offers a “Barbary lion and caracal kittens;” a third, in California, is selling a “rare Asian leopard cat female, nine weeks old, bottle raised.” More startling still: the price tag of a tiger cub—between $300 and $900—is comparable to that of a poodle puppy registered with the American Kennel Club.

The astonishing ease with which you can buy, sell, or give away a tiger—or other big cat—attests to the mess of laws covering exotic cat ownership in the United States. The 1973 Endangered Species Act bars the import of tigers into the country, but does not forbid private ownership of those bred here. The USDA issues licenses to exhibitors of wild and exotic animals, but pet owners are not eligible to apply for one. In 2003, a watershed federal law was passed: the Captive Wildlife Safety Act bans the interstate shipment of lions, tigers, and bears for the pet trade. However, the law does not forbid the breeding and intrastate delivery of the animals for non-commercial purposes. State and local laws vary widely and contain numerous loopholes that can confuse even the most earnest pet owners. Some states have banned exotic cat ownership completely, while others don't even require the animals to be registered.

So confusing and inconsistent are the laws that many people are ignorant of them. Paris Hilton found out that her pet kinkajou—a small rainforest-dwelling mammal related to the raccoon—was illegal in California only after it bit her at 3 A.M. one morning in August 2006 and she required a trip to the hospital. Breeders and self-styled conservationists also appear unconcerned about the rules banning interstate shipment. “How many tigers do you want? I'll send them to you. “ Brian Werner jokingly offered when I interviewed him by phone from New York. Werner is the executive director of the Tiger Missing Link Foundation, which operates Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge in Tyler, Texas, and vice president of the Feline Conservation Federation (FCF), an advocacy group that represents private owners. “It's legal for me to send tigers to you as long as I'm not selling them. I am licensed by the USDA, by the way. But even if I weren't, I could give them to you.” In fact, a USDA-licensed facility can only transport an exotic cat across state lines to another licensed facility, or to an organization exempt from the prohibitions of the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, such as a nonprofit sanctuary. Violation carries a prison term of up to five years, but this does not deter many people. Tiger checks at state lines aren't exactly common.

In the past few years, states have started moving toward more control. In 2004, for example, the New York State legislature amended its environmental conservation law to ban the breeding of any wild cat species or the sale of wild felines as pets—a precaution likely taken in the wake of the 2003 case of Ming, a 400-pound tiger confined to a Harlem apartment [see photograph on previous page]. Ming now lives at Noah's Lost Ark, a nonprofit exotic animal sanctuary in Berlin Center, Ohio. Other states have followed suit and tightened laws after lions and tigers have mauled owners, the grandchildren of owners, or bystanders.

Matt Joseph keeps ten exotic felines on his thirty-acre ranch in Lisbon, Ohio: four cougars; two male lions; one lioness; two female ligers (a cross between a male lion and a female tiger), and one female Siberian tiger. He bought all of them from breeders, ranging from Georgia to Minnesota, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and houses the cats in 1,800- to 3,200-square-foot enclosures. “I go into cages with them, I lay with mine, I sleep with mine,” Joseph says. “A lot of people who've seen me do what I do say I'm crazy.” He appears to believe that he is immune from serious attack, despite statistics showing that exotic cats do injure owners and bystanders. In 2003—the same year that a 600-pound white tiger named Montecore dragged Las Vegas showman and tiger trainer Roy Horn across the stage and mauled him in front of a live audience—eighteen people were injured by captive tigers and four were killed. Even Joseph, who says he has seen other collectors confine tigers in cramped quarters, believes that nobody should own the animals, “not even myself, much as I love them and enjoy them.”

So what happens when pet owners find themselves threatened, attacked, or simply bored by their large pets? Many people abandon them. To prevent this, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission created an annual Non-Native Pet Anmesty Day. The free event, which will have its third anniversary on February 23, 2008 at the Miami Metro Zoo, gives remorseful owners the chance to turn over their animals without penalty—thus saving the local ecosystem from more strain. (Other alternatives are scarce. Most zoos require strict pedigrees for their animals, and they likely have an already-filled quota of tigers, lions, and other exotics. The consequences can be seen in the numerous sanctuaries—some for real, some in name only—that have popped up around the country. At the more luxurious end of the spectrum is the Carnivore Preservation Trust (CPT), a spreading expanse of woodland dotted with spacious enclosures, nestled on a remote country road in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Vultures swoop overhead in the humid southern air, searching for scraps of meat, as keepers rove around the site, tossing chunks of goat meat and dead chickens—rejects donated by a local meatpacking plant—over the high fences of the enclosures to the thirteen pacing tigers. Pam Fulk, executive director of the CPT, says the cats were found dumped in parking lots, deserted in trailers, or tethered half-starved at a junkyard where passersby could pose. “When they're cubs, they're cute, they're cuddly,” says Fulk. But at the critical age of six months, many are abandoned or killed.

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