Government Cracks Down on America’s Tiger Petting Zoos and Breeding Facilities

New rules take aim at tiger breeding and petting facilities that could be potentially fueling illegal wildlife trade.
(Photo: Radek Mica/AFP/Getty Images)
Apr 5, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Here’s an interesting statistic: There are more captive tigers in the United States than wild ones left on Earth.

But exactly how many, and precisely where all of these confined tigers reside, remains a mystery. Lax regulations and loopholes allow private owners to keep tigers as pets, for breeding, and on display at small roadside zoos where the public can pet and feed them, and mostly exempt from any sort of federal permitting process.

But on Tuesday, two agencies announced crackdowns on the lucrative (the Humane Society reported can bring in more than $20,000 a month in revenue for a single roadside zoo) and potentially wildlife-endangering practices of private tiger breeding and facilities that allow the public to pet exotic cats.

First, the United States Department of Agriculture barred zoos from allowing cubs under four weeks old to be petted or fed by members of the public.

The announcement comes following a 2012 petition by animal welfare groups including the Humane Society and Born Free USA, which called for a ban on public petting of big cats, bears, and primates.

Kate Dylewsky, program associate with Born Free, said the rule change is a long time coming and short of a full ban but a good first step.

“We prioritized this issue, because it may seem like such an innocent thing—taking a photo with these baby animals—but it is indicative of a system of breeding and discarding these animals that has the potential to fuel an illegal exotic pet trade,” Dylewsky said.

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The problem is a loophole added in 1998 to the federally run Captive-Bred Wildlife Registration system that exempted breeders from registering and obtaining permits to breed captive tigers labeled as “generic”—meaning they were of unknown genetic background, or were a cross between two different subspecies of tigers.

That loophole has allowed breeders across the country to breed, sell, and discard these animals without any formal record to show what happened to them. That lack of data has dangerous potential to fuel illegal wildlife trade in tiger parts, says Leigh Henry, a senior policy adviser for wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund.

Henry realized the scope of the problem back in 2008, when she and fellow researchers tried to get an accurate count of captive tigers in the U.S. Their best guess was around 5,000 tigers—more than the entire world population at the time of around 3,200.

“Nobody really knows, though, because there is just a hodgepodge of state rules on tiger breeding,” Henry said.

Twenty-three states allow private individuals to keep tigers as pets, and nearly all states have exemptions that include allowing captive tigers for breeding facilities, roadside zoos, circuses, sanctuaries, educational purposes, and scientific research. Only 16 states require owners to get permits or licenses or to register their big cats.

“When you don’t know who owns them, where they are selling them, and what happens to these tigers when they die, there is no way to ensure that these tigers aren’t ending up in the illegal wildlife trade,” Henry said.

But now, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is closing the loophole, announcing Tuesday that owners of captive “generic” tigers are no longer exempt from the permitting process, meaning any type of tiger now sold across state lines must be registered.

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“Removing the loophole that enabled some tigers to be sold for purposes that do not benefit tigers in the wild will strengthen protections for these magnificent creatures and help reduce the trade in tigers that is so detrimental to wild populations,” FWS Director Dan Ashe said in a statement.

Henry said the two new rules from the USDA and the FWS are an important step in slowing the breeding of tigers.

“It’s all part of this revolving process,” she said. “Breeders supply baby tigers to these roadside zoos and traveling exhibitions that allow the public to pet them, but once they reach a certain age, they’re eating $5,000 a month, and they’re no longer providing the same profit they were, they want to get rid of them.”

That leaves a bunch of grown tigers incapable of surviving in the wild homeless. Henry said many end up in tiger sanctuaries, but there are only so many openings available.

“In the past, there just has been no way to say whether or not these animals were being filtered into the illegal wildlife trade, but with the new requirements and annual reporting, we will have a better idea of where these tigers are, who owns them, and what’s happening with them—that way we can spot red flags or potential trouble spots and act,” she said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s final rule is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Wednesday and will take effect May 6.