Far from the Forests of the Night

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

exotics map
Private tiger owners often claim that by rescuing these forsaken felines, they are preserving them from extinction. It's an argument that makes little sense to wildlife ecologist Ron Tilson, director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo and the coordinator of the Tiger Species Survival Plan, a breeding program designed to maintain genetic diversity among zoo tigers in America by mating only the most distantly related individuals with each other. Tilson argues that captive tigers are so inbred that they could not survive if released into their native habitat, as some people advocate. “They've lost a whole lot of genetic tools that may be real important to them and their offspring to survive—for example, resistance to certain kinds of diseases, the ability to tolerate extreme heat or cold, the ability to know how to hunt and kill.”

Tilson also emphasizes the importance of protecting wild tigers, pointing to programs set up by the World Wildlife Fund and Wildlife Conservation Society to conserve vast swaths of landscape in Asia. He cites a successful scheme in the Russian Far East that rescued Siberian tigers from the brink of extinction. Twenty years ago, he says, just 150 tigers remained in the wild in Russia; in the last ten years, however, the tiger population there has doubled or even tripled, thanks to hard-nosed intervention efforts: aggressive patrolling for poachers' trucks inside protected areas, roadblocks, inspections, arrests, and stiff sentences.

In an attempt to cut down on such poaching, breeders in China have set up over a dozen “tiger farms,” housing about 4,000 felines. Parts harvested from those magnificent beasts are destined for the Asian medicinal market [see photograph below]. Raising a farmed tiger is about 250 times as expensive as hunting a wild one, however, so illegal trading remains alluring to poverty-stricken poachers—especially as it is impossible to distinguish farmed tiger organs from those illicitly obtained.

Could the inbreeding of large cats as pets in the U.S. be equally damaging to the individual felines—if not to the species at large? Because big cats in captivity are often accidentally or intentionally mated with close relatives, many of their offspring are born with genetic disorders—immune deficiencies, cleft palates, epilepsy, and kidney or heart problems. One recently deceased tiger housed at the CPT was so “mentally retarded,” says Pam Fulk, that he ignored an entire family of rabbits living under his den box.

As the disparate state laws in the United States continue to adjust and extend to cover exotic animals treated as pets, the need to redefine what it means to be wild may become more urgent. Breeders are not making that easy: they are crossing tigers and lions to produce ligers or tiglons, as well as crossing smaller wild cats with small breeds domesticated long ago. For example, the Bengal cat is a cross between an Asian leopard cat and a domestic cat; the striped “toyger,” the offspring of a Bengal cat and a domestic, resembles a miniature tiger; and a new “designer” breed, the $20,000-plus spotted Ashera, is a serval crossed with an Asian leopard cat and domestic breeds.

Not unlike those hybrids, captive and inbred tigers in the U.S. have clearly drifted far from their wild roots; they are both thousands of miles and many generations away from their native state. Certainly they should not be used as an excuse for complacency about the need to conserve a natural, native habitat for their wild-dwelling brethren—if anything, the opposite. For though exotic cat collectors may yearn for a taste of the wild in their daily lives, they also—paradoxically—squelch the spirit of these fierce predators. Even so the large cats, captive or otherwise, will never be completely domesticated, as Ellen Whitehouse, the executive director of Noah's Lost Ark, insists. “People live in this fantasy world where they think that the tigers and lions actually, truly love them.” She says, “They honestly cannot ever be tamed. They cannot be controlled. They're always wild. I have raised some here, and every single one of them would eat me.”

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