May 12, 2005

The Siberian Tigers of ... Minnesota?

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- More wild tigers now live as pets and in roadside zoos, breeding kennels, and privately-run wildlife attractions in the U.S. than in their native Asian habitats, according to certified zookeepers and wildlife conservationists.  

Estimates of the number of wild tigers kept as pets and in rural exhibition parks in the U.S. range as high as 10,000, while tigers remaining in the wild habitats of eastern Russia, China, India, Indonesia, and southeast Asia number less than 5,000, conservationists say.  

A bizarre side-effect of globalization with its impact now clearly visible in Minnesota, the rise in privately-owned tigers is driving a dramatic rise in tiger-related accidents here and across the U.S. Increasing numbers of sanctuaries, including one in Minnesota, are also being built for wild cats abandoned by their owners or seized in raids of illegal breeding operations.  

Small Minnesota farmers, looking to develop new sources of revenue after losing business to giant agribusiness operations, sometimes turn to exhibiting exotic animals, or breeding them to sell as pets. Such business contributes to the health of rural Minnesota economies, the farmers-turned-zookeepers argue.  

But conservationists say that breeding wild cats for such purposes is inhumane, environmentally unsound, and dangerous.

Bites and Swipes 

“It’s more than a pet issue,” said Tammy Quist, director of the Wildcat Sanctuary in Isanti County. “It’s a public safety risk.” In recent months, the sanctuary has taken in wild cats from rural homes, amateur zoos, backyards and basements in Red Wing, Burnsville, Edina, and Golden Valley.  

The sanctuary gets 30 calls a month from Minnesota pet owners who bought a tiger cub but can’t handle a grown cat; from police who confiscate the cats; and from humane societies that pick up abused tigers and cougars. Filled to overcapacity, the Wildcat Sanctuary is raising money to build a larger facility to accommodate the growing number of wildcats in need of a home.  

Two tiger maulings in Minnesota in recent weeks testify to the growing numbers of privately-owned wildcats in the U.S. On April 27, a Minneapolis woman was seriously injured after being attacked by four tigers while cleaning their pen at a private property near Frontenac.  

On March 6, a teenager was swiped by a tiger at the Arcangel Wildlife farm near Underwood, and later developed a serious wound infection that required healthy skin grafts to heal.  

In 2001, a tiger at a roadside animal park in Racine was euthanized after biting a Rochester girl. In 2003, another tiger at the site, called Bearcat Hollow, was killed after biting a woman on the wrist.  

Rampant Cross-Breeding

More than 600 tigers and other wild cats were confiscated in the U.S. last year, with roughly half that number euthanized to test for rabies or after no suitable sanctuary could be found for them, according to Ron Tilson, the director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo. Four humans were killed and 40 were injured by tigers and other big cats that year, including 13 children. The year before, there were 33 such incidents reported in the U.S. 

Contrary to popular notions, virtually all privately-owned tigers in this country do not come from Asia, but rather are bred from parents here in the United States. Most wildcats are as easy to breed as house cats and have similar-sized litters. Cubs fetching between $500 and $2,000 apiece have lured many entrepreneurs into the business. Only later do they find how difficult it is to maintain a safe and humane tiger breeding operation. 

Rampant cross-breeding of species and mating parent-child pairs has degraded the gene pool of the five purebred tiger species in the world, and resulted in the U.S. wildcat population becoming a “genetic cocktail” that is entirely unfit for ever returning to the wild, according to Tilson. 

“They are being bred for profit, for sale as pets and for their products, including their skins, bones, whiskers, and for taxidermy,” Tilson said. “All of this is done on the black market, illegally or quietly.”  

"Generic Tigers"

Some wildlife groups say that U.S.-bred tigers are sold to “canned hunt” operations, mostly in Texas, where wealthy hunters pay to hunt tigers, lions, and other big game wild animals that are released on game farms.  

A cross-breed between a housecat and the African serval wildcat, called a Savannah, has in recent years become a popular pet in the U.S., selling for between $4,000 and $10,000 a cat. Servals themselves have also become popular pets, but two attacks by servals against children have raised warning signals, and conservationists decry the breeding and cross-breeding of such cats as inhumane and ethically questionable.  

The population of up to 10,000 privately-owned tigers in the U.S. began, wildlife experts believe,  in the 1970’s when parents from the wild were mated who originally were smuggled into the U.S. from Asia, or were illicitly sold from traveling circuses and zoos to unscrupulous entrepreneurs. 

The offspring of those parents have since been interbred countless times, creating virtually a new, sixth breed of tiger in the world called “generic captive tiger” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  
In the past decade, breeders found an eager market for these tigers among people who wanted to boast that they owned a wild tiger.  

Horrible Monsters

“It’s like buying a fancy car or a bigger house,” said Leigh Henry, program officer for TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring branch of the World Wildlife Fund. “It’s a macho thing. People want to be known for owning the biggest pet on the block.” 

Tigers start out as mewing kittens, but within a year can kill with a single swipe and need 20 pounds a day of fresh meat to eat. “It takes thousands of dollars a year to keep them,” said Tom Solin, a private investigator in Bellingham, Washington who helps law enforcement handle increasing numbers of wildcat cases. “Within a year they are in predator-prey mode.” 

Many private breeders say they are performing a public service by increasing a species that is endangered in its native habitat. But this is not at all true, say wildcat conservation experts say.  

“They create a lot of horrible genetic monsters,” Tilson said. He said many deformed and mutant cubs must be euthanized along with the healthy ones that are born. But even the healthy ones could never survive in the wild.  

“You lose significant genes through inbreeding,” he said. “You start getting lower fecundity, more susceptibility to disease, and less ability to survive trauma. It’s all about profit. Not a single organization would use these tigers in a recovery program.” In such programs, animals bred in captivity are released into the wild to keep endangered species from going extinct.  

Safe and Humane?

The rise in tiger maulings in recent years, including the near-fatal attack on the Las Vegas performer Roy Horn in 2003, has prompted several states to pass laws prohibiting the private ownership of wild cats.

In May, 2004, Minnesota passed such a law, but present owners of own wild cats are exempted, as are breeders in compliance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees animal breeding operations.  

Fourteen states have comprehensive laws banning private ownership of wild and exotic animals; nine (including Minnesota) have partial bans; 13 have some form of regulations; and 14 states have no relevant legislation, according to Nicole Paquette, the director of legal and government affairs for the Animal Protection Institute, in Sacramento, CA.  

Opponents of such legislation, including the Feline Conservation Federation, argue that small zoo and breeding operations are on the whole safe and humane and are helping preserve endangered species for future generations.  

In the debate preceding passage of the 2004 Minnesota law, FCF spokesman Lynn Culver argued that family farms that raise exotic animals support many other local businesses including veterinarians, feed companies, and building supply stores.  

“Not only are private, USDA-licensed breeders helping wildlife species, they are also important to rural economies,” Culver said.

Copyright @ 2005 The McGill Report