There are more tigers living in cramped backyards in Texas than there are in the wild.
At roadside zoos, shady people like Joseph Maldonado-Passage, Joe “Exotic” of Tiger King fame, breed big cats like rabbits so they have an endless supply of cubs to steal from their mothers before they’re weaned, pumped full of sedatives, and handed off to tourists who take selfies with them but never stop to consider the welfare of those baby cats or the harm they’re enabling.
And in states like Florida, where “Muh freedoms!” reign supreme over all other values, people can own any wild animals they want, with no real oversight and no mechanisms to ensure they’re doing right by the animals. There’s nothing forcing “exotic” animal “owners” to keep the big cats, monkeys and other mammals in proper enclosures where they have stimulation and — just as importantly — won’t escape and hurt neighbors.
Thankfully, things could change soon as lawmakers are expected to vote on the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a rare bipartisan effort that would finally make it illegal to keep tigers, lions, jaguars, leopards, cheetahs, pumas and other wildcats privately, whether in homes, businesses or non-accredited “zoos.”
Currently keeping big cats is illegal or severely restricted in most states, but like many things in the US, there’s a confusing patchwork of laws and things that would be unthinkable in other states are perfectly acceptable in places like Texas and Florida.
Because, you know, “muh freedoms.”
Now is a good time to point out that this blog has always been, and will remain, politically agnostic. I have my own political beliefs as any other person does, but PITB is a cat humor, news and advocacy blog, and the only politics we discuss here are those that relate to animal welfare. Equally important, Buddy and I want people of all political persuasions to feel comfortable as readers and commenters on PITB. (Although that could change if one or both political parties suddenly makes a move against the nation’s Strategic Turkey Supply. Then Buddy’s gonna have to get biblical.)
The Big Cat Safety Act is co-sponsored in congress by representatives Mike Quickly, D-IL, and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-PA, and in the senate by senators Susan Collins, R-ME, Tom Carpenter, D-DE, Richard Burr, R-NC, and Richard Blumenthal, D-CT.
If your congressional representative or your senators aren’t publicly on board with the Big Cat Safety Act, you can make your voice heard via the Humane Society’s site, which allows you to draft and send letters to the offices of your lawmakers.
Even though Tiger King, the tawdry Netflix documentary about a redneck and his “zoo” full of tigers, focused more on the eccentric people involved than the plight of the big cats in their “care,” it got people talking about the problem of captive tigers in the US.
In 2020, congress passed a rare bipartisan bill to ban all big cat ownership in the US. The bill stalled when the senate failed to vote on it before the end of the legislative session, but now it’s back — and the recent saga of a confused tiger wandering around Houston may finally provide the nudge for politicians to pass the badly-needed bill.
By contrast, there’s an estimated 7,000 tigers kept as “pets” in the US, with as many as 5,000 of them in Texas.
The Big Cat Public Safety Act would ban the private ownership of tigers, lions, jaguars, leopards, cougars and cheetahs. It would also outlaw the practice of taking tiger cubs from their mothers so guests can hold them and take selfies with them, which has become an increasingly-popular and controversial feature of “roadside zoos” — unregulated, poorly run, unaccredited facilities — in the US.
The Houston tiger, named India, is one of those unfortunate cubs. While the public freaked out and Houston residents huddled in their homes, hoping to record footage of the wandering tiger, an important fact was often left out of media reports: India is only eight months old. He’s essentially a baby, albeit a 175-pound one, and he had no idea what was happening to him, where he was, how to feed himself, or how to escape the endless sprawl of urban and suburban Texas.
Despite the fact that he was a confused-yet-playful cub, India could have easily been shot by authorities. Thankfully he survived his ordeal, and while his “owner,” Victor Cuevas, is sitting in jail on $300,000 bond, India has been relocated to a sanctuary in northern Texas, where he’ll be looked after and will get to live in the company of other tigers.
In the meantime, we all have an opportunity to lobby our respective senators and demand that they vote for the Big Cat Public Safety Act. You can fire off a letter to your senators and congressional representative in less than two minutes using the Animal Welfare Institute’s site — just punch in your address and the site will draft automated letters to all three, with fields to sign your name and to personalize the letters.
Tell them you support the Big Cat Public Safety Act, and you’ll take their vote into consideration the next time you head to the ballot box.
A woman from Thailand apparently decided that caging, beating and sedating tigers for selfies wasn’t enough mistreatment for Earth’s critically endangered apex predators. You can always add more insult, just a little icing on the “We Destroyed Your Entire Species” cake, by grabbing a handful of tiger testicles and mean-mugging for a selfie.
Of course the reason the tourist, named Waraschaya Akkarachaiyapas (also referred to as Khun Waraschaya in some media reports), was able to enter the tiger enclosure and pose with the tigers in the first place is because the keepers at Tiger Kingdom zoo in Thailand sedate the animals until they can barely yawn, rendering them incapable of defending their personal space or doing anything other than laying down as tourist after tourist touches them and poses for selfies.
Tiger Kingdom was at the forefront of the so-called “Disneyfied” “zoo experience,” in which the operators rake in millions by breeding tiger cubs like an assembly line and charging tourists to interact and pose for photo with the animals.
The tourists are told comforting lies: Employees of Tiger Kingdom dress like Buddhist monks, spout platitudes about being one with nature, and claim their “humble” operation began when one kindly monk took in an orphaned cub and founded a sanctuary decades ago.
The reason the tigers are so docile, the tourists are told, is because the monks hand-raise them, socializing them with humans from a young age. (Paging Siegfried and Roy, as well as Joe Exotic’s two former employees who lost limbs to hand-reared tigers!)
The comforting fiction allows tourists to justify what they’re doing: When an acquaintance of mine proudly changed her social media profile photo to a shot of herself hugging an adult tiger, she acted as if she was shocked by the suggestion that the tigers were sedated. No, she explained, you don’t understand! These tigers were hand-raised by the monks from the time they were cubs! That’s why they love spending 12 hours a day having their tails pulled and getting mounted by tourists who want to ride them like horses. They love it!
It takes only a few seconds to refute what we’ll gently call that misconception: Articles abound of former employees and conservation experts describing horrific conditions for the animals at Tiger Kingdom. (It’s not the only “zoo” that thrives on selling big cat interactions in Thailand: When the infamous “Tiger Mountain” attraction was raided by authorities in 2016, they found the remains of more than 60 tiger cubs, tiger pelts, and “around 1,500 tiger skin amulets, plus other trinkets apparently made of tiger teeth.”)
The cubs, who would normally spend at least two years with their mothers, are taken away when they’re infants so Tiger Kingdom’s employees can hand-raise them, and not with the care and good intent they claim: The operators want the cubs to be accustomed to being handled and passed around so they don’t protest too much when tourists manhandle them.
The cubs are big money-makers, and tourists will pay a premium to feed them from milk bottles. The baby tigers are fed and fed until they can’t drink anymore, then they’re fed some more, former employees say. The bottle-feeding only stops when the day’s over and there are no more tourists forking over an additional $15 to get “adorable” photos of themselves with the babies.
That’s also the age when the cubs are introduced to the bamboo stick, the primary tool for keeping them in line. A cub who doesn’t want to leave its cage for another day of manhandling and force-feeding is smacked on the nose with a bamboo stick until it complies.
Tiger attractions like the infamous one at Thailand’s Tiger Kingdom have popped up all around the world, with interest fueled by enthusiastic reviews from celebrities like Beyoncé, who shared photos of her visit to an American tiger park with her millions of Instagram followers.
If Queen Bey says it’s okay, then it must be okay. Okay?
Life as a cub at Tiger Kingdom is a walk in the park compared to adulthood. Most of the adults are confined in cages 24 hours a day and are only let out on busy days when the operation swells with visitors who want tiger selfies. (Tiger selfies are extraordinarily popular with men who use them on dating site profiles, and Buddy’s home state of New York went so far as to ban tiger selfies because of their prevalence.)
When you consider the context, it’s really not surprising when someone like Waraschaya Akkarachaiyapas feels perfectly comfortable literally molesting the animals for her amusement.
We’ve poached this species to the brink of extinction and destroyed its habitat. We make rugs of their pelts, mount their taxidermied heads to our walls, sell their claws and teeth as trinkets, and grind their bones into dust for use in elixirs that allegedly cure ailments like baldness and erectile disfunction, according to ridiculous millennia-old folk medicine systems. (Having exhausted their supply of tigers to slaughter for traditional Chinese “medicine,” the Chinese have turned to poaching the Amazon’s jaguars to fuel their insatiable appetite for big cat parts. Jaguar poaching has skyrocketed “200 fold” in the last five years to fuel Chinese demand for animal parts.)
In that context, literally molesting a helpless animal is a drop in the ocean of abuse, decimation and the destruction of the dignity of these amazing animals. We’re supposed to be the intelligent species on this planet, the wise caretakers of the only world that we know of brimming with life. We are failing miserably.
Sometimes it seems like writers at the New York Times are in a competition with each other to prove who’s the most out-of-touch.
The latest effort comes courtesy of Alexandra Marvar, who begins her profile of a designer cat breeder by reminiscing about the good old days when those lacking sense or self-awareness could be fabulous by keeping wild animals as “chic pets”:
Not so long ago, wild cat companions were associated with glamour, class and creativity. Salvador Dalí brought his ocelot to the St. Regis. Tippi Hedren lounged with her lions in her Los Angeles living room. Josephine Baker’s cheetah, collared in diamonds, strolled the Champs-Élysées. In their time, these wild creatures made chic pets.
But, Marvar writes, those animal welfare activists had to come and ruin things for fabulous people:
But by the mid-1970s, a wave of awareness and wildlife protection legislation changed both the optics of owning a big cat, and the ability to legally purchase one.
Killjoys. Don’t they know Dali, Hedren and Baker were just being fabulous? They were being classy and creative! Who has time for people who claim it’s wrong to keep a wild animal that ranges 50 miles a day confined in a living room? They have gilded cages, diamond collars and meals of filet mignon!
Now that wild cat ownership has been relegated to mulleted felons and gun-toting Texans who keep exotic cats to hold on tight to “muh freedoms” — stripping the practice of all glamour, class and fabulousness — where can the wealthy turn when they don’t just want pets, but status symbols?
The creators of the latest designer breeds, Toygers and Bengals, of course. Meet our heroes, the late breeder Jean Mill and her daughter, Judy Sugden:
Meanwhile, a cat breeder named Jean Mill was working on a more practical alternative: her leopard-spotted companion was just ten inches tall. At her cattery in Southern California, Ms. Mill invented a breed of domestic cat called the Bengal, which would offer wild cat admirers the best of both worlds: an impeccable leopard-like coat, and an indoor-cat size and demeanor.
Note: If you think a Persian makes you fabulous, surrender that cat to the nearest shelter immediately. Persians are so 2013!
[A Bengal cat breeder] recalled there used to be “tons” of ads for Persian cats in the back of Cat Fancy magazine. But the Persian’s prim, manicured aesthetic is no longer en vogue. “That look doesn’t say, ‘I can survive in the jungle,’” Mr. Hutcherson said. “It says, ‘I need somebody to open this can of cat food because there’s no way this cat is catching a mouse.’”
Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue and a star of Netflix’s “Tiger King,” has called toyger owners “selfish” and said creating new breeds is “strapping a nuclear warhead to the feral cat problem.” Others might argue that compared with shelter pets, designer species (the rarer of which may cost as much tens of thousands of dollars per kitten) are a different beast altogether.
Others might argue! Who are those others? Uh, Marvar and…and…nevermind. The important thing to realize is that there are cats — the riff-raff adopted from animal shelters by plebs — and there are chic, elegant, glamorous beasts. To compare a shelter pet to a Toyger would be like comparing a Geo Metro to an Aston Martin.
In the glowing profile of Mill’s daughter, the toyger breeder — whose cats the Times compares to the Mona Lisa and whose work it describes as a “creative effort” in “cultivating” perfect “beasts” — the newspaper devotes a single line to those who object to the industrial manufacture of designer pets when shelters are forced to euthanize cats who aren’t adopted:
…the designer cat market is a thriving one where supply rarely meets demand, and in its service, more than 40,000 registered house cat breeders around the world are devoted to supplying pet owners with Ragdoll, Sphynx and other prized breeds. (PETA has argued this clientele should instead adopt cats from a shelter.)
The fact that 1.4 million pets are put down every year in the US wasn’t considered important enough to mention in the Times story. Too much of a buzzkill. Ain’t no one got time for that!
The rest of the Times’ editorial staff and its stable of contributors will have a tough time topping Marvar’s masterpiece. But as they try — and try they will — remember these are the same people who want to teach the rest of us about privilege and inequality in modern society as they social distance in their Scarsdale homes and file their stories from their couches next to their $10,000 pets.
Feline humor, news and stories about the ongoing adventures of Buddy the Cat.