Did you know that there are more pet tigers in America than there are in the wild globally? I’m not talking about animals in zoos or wildlife parks, but tigers kept as domestic pets. In fact, 94% of tigers in the USA are pets, according to the WWF. The exact number is unknown, but it is believed that across America there is upwards of 5,000 backyard big cats, including lions, leopards and cougars. Yes, somewhere in Texas there’s a crazy cat lady you really don’t want to mess with.
And this is all legal. In six US states you don’t need a permit to own a pet tiger, and in many more it is permissible with a licence, which are basically issued if you promise you’re not crazy. In Nevada, you can own megafauna including elephants, wolves and primates (provided the primates in question aren’t humans, though I’m sure some people would change that law if they could). Only a handful of states outright ban keeping one of these animals as a pet. It is perhaps not surprising that Born Free USA has recorded 87 deaths and 2,889 violent incidents involving exotic animals since 1990.
If you thought pet tigers were only owned by Las Vegas entertainers and boxing promoters, think again. A truck stop in Louisiana has become controversial for the Siberian Bengal tiger named Tony kept there as a tourist attraction. The owner, who has kept tigers for years, maintains that Tony is a beloved pet. Animal rights activists say the animal is housed in substandard conditions, and that a live tiger shouldn’t be a gas station mascot anyway. The issue has become contentious; the owner has received threats from activists, and the truck stop now sells t-shirts saying “Animal Rights Activists Taste Like Chicken”. This is what happens when a tiger cub is cheaper than a second-hand Nissan Micra.
The UK has more regulation, but the number of people who keep apex predators as pets is still higher than I had expected, particularly as I had expected it to be zero. A report last year revealed that more than 100 councils in the UK have given people licences to keep exotic pets, including 13 tigers, 2 lions, 8 leopards, 7 cheetahs, 9 pumas, 10 alligators, 9 crocodiles, 17 caimans, 15 wolves and over 300 poisonous snakes. Nor does there seem to be any legislation preventing you building a shark tank in your house, which is good to know if you ever decide to move into the supervillain business.
I find there to be something slightly perturbing about this. True, I always knew that there are some weird and wacky pets out there. I’ve been in pet shops which sell marmosets and large monitor lizards. I’ve heard stories of vets seeing pet sugar gliders and capybaras – animals that can be owned without a licence in the UK. I’ve seen the news stories about fugitive boa constrictors found in back gardens. But we hear so much about the damage that the exotic pet trade is doing, about the high levels of cruelty, about the destruction being done by traffickers, and the critical need to protect wildlife, that I just assumed that it must be illegal to keep most types of exotic animal as a pet.
But, because I like to give a balanced argument, I also considered the counterarguments that people might make. We’ve seen from people like Joy and George Adamson of Born Free fame that it is possible to form a bond with a big cat, and a wild one at that, so is it a kneejerk reaction to say that tigers can’t be pets? Furthermore, commercial interest in these animals may help their conservation. Poaching and habitat destruction would have rendered many species extinct already if it weren’t for people taking them into captivity. Look at the scimitar oryx, which has become extinct in the wild but thrives on private exotic animal ranches in Texas, where they are bred for food and trophy hunting, which is pretty much the only thing saving them from being wiped off the planet; yet activists continue to oppose this, apparently not understanding or caring that their actions will probably hasten the oryx’s extinction. This seems counterproductive at best.
And pragmatically, where will all these animals go if private ownership is banned? Domesticated tigers can’t be released into the wild, and zoos will not be prepared for an influx of thousands of them that suddenly need housing. The majority of them will likely have to be put down. Animals in captivity will (if properly looked after) never go without food, will not be attacked by humans or other animals, can receive medical care, and will probably live longer than their counterparts in the wild. Also, if welfare is a concern, well, thousands of dogs, cats, rabbits and other common pets are kept in poor conditions, often maltreated and abused, and our reaction is not to call for a ban on sales and ownership of those animals. Why is it any different for other animals, like tigers? Why have a hierarchy? Is opposition logical, or just based on sentiment?
What do you think? Should we have a total ban on keeping these kinds of exotic animals as pets? Should we allow it with proper oversight? Or should there be no more regulation than there is with common pets? Where do you draw the line?
If you’re intrigued by exotic pets, you may be interested in our webinar ‘Compare The Meerkat’: Exotic Mammal Pets in Practice. Here, Sean McCormack gives us a fascinating insight into the weird and wonderful esoteric pets you may encounter at your practice, and the best methods of care and treatment. This is very much a webinar with a difference.