Tony the Tiger is a magnificent Siberian-Bengal mix, tipping the scales at 550 pounds. Descended from great hunters in the wild, this stunning animal has lived in a cage in a Louisiana truck stop for more than 10 years. Currently, the Animal Legal Defense Fund is trying to move him to Big Cat Rescue sanctuary, but Tony’s owner and the “Keep Tony Where He Is” Facebook group are opposed to the idea.
The United States has more captive tigers, like Tony, than the population of wild tigers in the rest of the world. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that there are about 5,000 tigers in the U.S. and only 3,200 in the wild. This reported number of captive tigers in America is most likely lower than actuality, however, because, as Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, said, the reporting is “based on the honor system, and we’re dealing with a lot of people that are dishonorable.”
Today, thirty states have laws against owning a tiger, 14 states require a permit, and six states including Wisconsin allow unrestricted ownership. The Fish and Wildlife Service is monitoring the types of purebred tigers exchanging hands across state borders. However, since most captive tigers are mixed breeds, they are typically overlooked.
Many of these tigers in captivity suffer. They live cramped in small cages and are malnourished and deprived of adequate exercise. Additionally, due to breeding with direct family members, some are born with defects. For example, all white tigers are descendents of Mohan, an albino Bengal who was bred with his daughter. Consequently, white tigers are often born with crossed eyes, a condition called strabismus, which makes it hard for them to move and see.
Holding tigers captive is not safe for their human owners, either. The increasing number of captive tigers has directly led to more attacks on humans. Between 1990 and 2006, for example, seven people were killed in 27 attacks.
The exploitation of tigers for money is especially widespread in China, where the animals are raised and killed for their beautiful fur and their bones, which are used to make expensive tiger-bone wine. Since America does not take good care of its captive tigers, some argue that China is unlikely to do so either. “U.S. tigers have a direct bearing on what China does,” said J.A. Mills, a wildlife conservationist and author. “And what China does has a direct bearing on whether wild tigers survive,” she added.
Supporters of tiger ownership say that the large number of tigers in the U.S. compared to the rest of the world might help save them from extinction. They concede that the way they are treated is not an acceptable means of accomplishing that goal, however. The Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act proposed in 2013, would let only owners authorized by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums keep tigers. This would hopefully reduce the number of suffering animals around the country. Though the bill was not passed, it may reappear for debate again this year.