BBC Wildlife Magazine
Land of the tiger kings
True crime series Tiger King had people glued to their TVs this year, but it didn’t reveal all about big-cat trade in the US.
Following the hit Netflix series Tiger King, we delve deeper into the issues faced by captive big cats in the US
The Netflix documentary Tiger King became a smash hit, thanks to wild storylines and interpersonal drama, but the series largely ignored the myriad issues affecting captive big cats in the United States. Even after it was revealed that Joseph MaldonadoPassage, aka Joe Exotic, killed five tigers while running the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, very little was said about why the desire to own big cats is so pervasive in American culture.
There is currently no federal law regulating the private possession of big cats in the US, and while the majority of US states have banned the practice, some require a permit and several have no limitations whatsoever for keeping tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars, cougars, cheetahs and hybrids like ligers as ‘pets’. Laws for exhibition also vary in each of the 50 US states, but with far fewer restrictions.
As long as an individual obtains a Class C exhibitor license from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), they are free to use animals for any number of commercial purposes. Not only does this patchwork of state laws create an opportunity for big cats to be exploited, abused and illegally traded across state lines, but the lack of federal regulation makes it easy for them to be treated as a commodity.
Though the USDA has specifications regarding the handling of big-cat cubs, cub petting is legal as long as the animals are between 8 and 12 weeks of age. Myrtle Beach Safari, which is featured in Tiger King, offers a variety of cub interaction tours at their South Carolina facilities, ranging from a quick photo opportunity priced at $100 to swimming with tigers, which starts at $5,000. With a narrow window for big-cat cubs to be handled legally, hundreds are bred each year across the US to create a steady supply for customers, many of whom are unaware of the dark side of this lucrative industry.
In the wild, big-cat cubs remain with their mothers for up to two years, but cubs bred for petting are separated from their mothers shortly after birth. When cubs grow too large to be handled by the public, some end up in accredited zoos and sanctuaries, but most endure poor living conditions in backyards and unaccredited facilities, lacking proper nutrition, housing and veterinary care. Worse yet, some disappear, and with the loopholes in current US legislation and a lack of records, it is impossible to know where they go.
Lions, tigers and selfies
Beyond lax laws, the desire to interact with these animals and document the experience has increased with the rise of social media. Myrtle Beach Safari regularly posts photos and videos of founder Bhagavan ‘Doc’ Antle and his son Kody Antle cuddling, feeding and swimming with big cats on Instagram, and the younger Antle shares the same content on his own Instagram and TikTok accounts, which have two million and 14 million followers, respectively. BBC Wildlife approached Doc Antle for a comment but he did not respond.
Carson Barylak, campaigns manager at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), was asked about the role of social media in the big-cat breeding industry:
“The proliferation of tiger selfies on social media platforms has reinforced demand for cub-handling opportunities in the US and abroad and, especially in the case of public figures, has glamorised private ownership of dangerous felids.”
When interaction with big cats is marketed to an audience of millions, it only encourages people to seek these experiences, sometimes in countries with fewer regulations than the United States.
“Unregulated captive breeding of wild cats and the petting zoo industry in the US undermines efforts to stop the black market trade in tiger parts, which is driving the decline of tigers in the wild,” explains Dr John Goodrich, chief scientist and tiger programme director for conservation organisation Panthera. While wild tiger parts are preferred for traditional Asian medicine, these majestic felids are also farmed for human consumption, often under the guise of tourism and volunteer programmes. Other big-cat species are on the menu as well – South Africa even allowed a legal export of up to 800 lion skeletons annually until 2018, further fuelling the illicit trade.
While tigers and lions are not bred to be slaughtered in the US, the hypocrisy still hurts conservation efforts. Barylak adds, “When US officials have pressed other nations – including those in which tiger farming continues to grow, reinforcing global demand for parts and products – to restrict such intensive captive breeding operations, they lack credibility and influence due to America’s own unchecked tiger breeding.”
Complicating matters further is the confusion about accreditation and breeding programmes in the US. While it is not required on a state or federal level, accreditation does offer establishments more legitimacy. However, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the more recently established Zoological Association of America (ZAA) have very different policies surrounding the breeding of and caring for big cats.
AZA’s strictly managed Species Survival Plan (SSP) Program focuses on maintaining genetic diversity at AZA facilities, while the ZAA’s Animal Management Programs (AMPs) support breeding by public and private owners. When it comes to care, AZA enclosures are required to have a pool and natural vegetation, and the recommended size for a single tiger is at least 144m². The minimum size of an enclosure for up to two tigers at ZAA facilities is listed as 33m², and pools are recommended, but not required.
By contrast, accredited sanctuaries, rescues and rehabilitation centres do not support any form of breeding, and both the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) and the American Sanctuary Association (ASA) have strict member policies. “We do not believe that big cats, who in nature roam huge territories, should be bred for life in a cage,” states Howard Baskin, advisory board chairman of Big Cat Rescue in Florida. Baskin adds that most of the rescued cats at their GFAS-accredited facility come from private owners who are not licensed exhibitors, while others are removed by law enforcement from abusive situations or defunct exhibitors.
In addition to Florida and USDA exhibitor licenses, Big Cat Rescue holds a state rehabilitator license for its work with orphaned and injured native bobcats. It’s worth noting that while Myrtle Beach Safari has a USDA exhibitor license, they are not currently accredited by any zoo, sanctuary or rehabilitation organisation.
Though irresponsible breeding has created an unsustainable captive big-cat population in the US, it is also argued that strictly managed breeding benefits education and conservation. The Feline
“Big cats, who in nature roam huge territories, should not be bred for life in a cage.”