Tigers in Texas
Texas has the highest tiger-to-people ratio in the world.
The exact number of tigers in Texas is unknown but it is estimated by many experts that there are at least 4,000 tigers kept by private individuals in Texas. That means that there are more tigers captive in Texas than roaming in the wild in India.
Some of the experts I refer to are:
McAllen police officer Frank Garcia
Alejandro Rodriguez, special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Richard Farinato, the Humane Society of the United States
Jerry Stones, facilities director at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville
The Drug Enforcement Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Richard Gilbreth, director of the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary, Boyd
I know it sounds unbelievable, but there are over 12,000 tigers owned as pets in the US and over 4,000 of them are in Texas. Houston alone has over 500 exotic cats being kept as pets by private citizens. I singled out Texas to write about because I am a native Texan.
Sadly, the exotic animal trade is a billion-dollar industry in Texas—which has almost no regulation of exotic animals. The few laws that Texas has are rarely enforced. With such little oversight, the breeding and smuggling of exotic animals—tigers in particular—are booming in Texas. There are a lot of animal breeders and a lot of animal dealers.
Because owning and breeding tigers is legal, law enforcement often has no recourse. Breeding can be lucrative. White tiger cubs sell for $5,000 each. Since tigers can have two litters a year of eight cubs, a breeder can earn $80,000 a year. Many of these white tiger cubs are sold to small businesses that travel around the country displaying them as props and charging tourists to take pictures with them.
Traveling petting zoos that feature baby lions and tigers are a huge source of exotic animals. Since the animals are only suitable for petting between the ages of 8 and 12 weeks, the operators of these attractions must keep breeding them to stay in business, said Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla.
"When they can't use them anymore, they become this $10,000 a year liability. They will give them away, sell them, no paperwork," Baskin said. "Then (the buyers) call us and say, 'I can't deal with this carnivore.'"
"If you want to place a big cat, I would tell you that every reputable sanctuary is full and more than full," said Patty Finch, executive director of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, an accrediting body.
The number of abandoned and seized tigers reached epidemic proportions about 10 years ago.
A federal law prohibits businesses from displaying tigers older than six months with humans because the cats have become too big and dangerous. So the businesses buy another set of cubs. At least 20 small-time operators in Texas would need eight tiger cubs to work throughout the year. In five years, that would total 800 tigers.
Tigers are not difficult to breed in captivity. Innovations in tiger cub formulas, diet, and vaccinations have spurred tiger breeders’ success.
Many breeding operations turn out white Bengal tigers because they are novelties that generate 10 times more money than orange tigers. (White and orange Bengal tigers are the same species, but white tigers have a double recessive genetic condition.) Breeders and exhibitors use the excuse that white tigers are an endangered species so they need to keep breeding them. This is false. Breeders of white tigers do not contribute to any species survival plan; they are breeding for money.
While white tigers can fetch thousands, the less desirable orange tigers can be had for free. A recent ad in Animal Finders, a subscription-only newspaper that advertises exotic animals for sale read “Tiger, free to a good home. Good with children.”
When breeders are trying for white tigers, they sometimes just keep the white ones of the litter and destroy or neglect the orange ones.
There are registered breeders in Texas who have USDA licenses. There are also numerous private owners who have a couple of tigers in their backyard. They are not considered commercial breeders, so no state or federal agency keeps tabs on them. It is truly frightening the number of people who are breeding these animals. From Lubbock Online, "In Yorktown, Texas, 10-year-old Lorin Villafana was in the cage with her stepfather when one of his tigers went for her neck and killed her." This is just one example.
During these tough economic times, what does a person do when they have a pet tiger that costs thousands of dollars a year just to feed and that person gets laid off work? There are the vet bills, and the day-to-day cost of maintaining a habitat for a tiger. A tiger in captivity needs a huge space in which to roam. They love to spend time swimming. They can jump forward 14 feet or so, so their area needs to be separated by a ravine. A tiger’s lifespan in captivity can be 25 years or more.
If you own a tiger, you will have to have a veterinarian on call who has already agreed to take care of your cat. There are not many with experience and fewer still who want to deal with the liability of having their staff and their clientele exposed to your big cat. You will have to have a stainless steel squeeze cage that is capable of holding your cat at its maximum weight. You could easily spend $2000.00 for one big enough for a tiger. You will need a forklift to move a tiger and they rent for $300.00 per day with an operator. No vet will bring a big cat into their office unless it is already confined to the squeeze cage.
How will you transport your cat to the vet for all of its yearly vaccinations, checkups and injuries? Its squeeze cage isn't going to fit into your car. You will need a van in tip top shape because being stranded on the side of the road with a tiger is not an option.
All wild cats, neutered or not, male or female, will spray bucket loads of urine all over everything they wish to claim as theirs. This is how nature has taught them to guard territory. There is no way to prevent this behaviour. The urine is caustic and will destroy their cage walls in a very short period of time, so you will be constantly rebuilding. You can’t imagine what it does to the sheet rock walls of your house or to wood. Those trips to the vet will leave your new van smelling like a sewer and nothing will get that smell out.
Once tigers are mature they no longer feel any love for their mother and if they run into her in the wild they will kill her. Even if you raised them with all of the love and nurturing that their natural mother would provide (and she would die to protect them) they will not feel love or respect for you when they are full grown. Instinct tells them that you are competition and that their survival depends on being solitary.
You will never be able to legally move long-distance with your big cat because the captive Wildlife Safety Act prohibits moving big exotic pet cats across state lines. Many progressive states are banning the practice of keeping wild cats captive.
It is a rare individual indeed who has the financial resources, the stamina, and the dedication to keep these animals well-fed, clean, with plenty of room for freedom of movement, and at the same time, safely away from the human population.
An owner might just give up and turn the tiger loose or move away and abandon the tiger to starve or escape.
Texas is running out of zoos and sanctuaries that can take animals that are abandoned by their owners or seized in illegal smuggling rings. The burgeoning tiger population has dangerous consequences for public safety -- you might have a pet tiger living down the block -- not to mention the health of the tiger, forced to live in poor conditions.
A glut of tigers in an unregulated market can mean tragedy for the animals. Where are all of these tigers going to go?
There are few places for tigers to go when their owners abandon them. For many years, Texas had no regulation of dangerous wild animals. But after a series of high profile maulings and deaths were reported in the media, the nonprofit Texas Humane Legislative Network prodded the Legislature to pass the Dangerous Wild Animal Act in 2001.
The law requires counties and cities to register dangerous wild animals such as tigers with local animal control. It mandates that the owner keep the animal in a secure enclosure of adequate size, humanely care for the animal, and maintain at least $100,000 in liability insurance. It also gives cities and counties the option to ban private ownership of wild animals altogether.
Since the bill became law, fewer than half of Texas’ 254 counties have enforced the legislation. Some counties feel the responsibility should fall on a state agency. The local authorities say that they don’t have the resources to handle lions and tigers and cougars. So they are not going to enforce it.
It becomes a property rights issue for people who believe they should be able to own anything they want. You may find out that a guy two miles down the road from you owns a couple of tigers when a neighborhood child walks up to the fence and is injured or killed.
Tiger cubs are cute and cuddly. However, tigers reach adulthood within 2.5 years. Siberian tigers, the largest of the 6 remaining subspecies, grow from tiny little cubs to HUGE adults weighing up to 850 pounds and 11 feet or more in length from nose to tip of the tail. Most of their growing is in the first 18 months where growth is rapid.
Most other tigers weigh on average 650 pounds, possess phenomenal strength, can leap forward 14 feet or so, have 2 inch canine teeth and enough bite force to easily crush your femur, and 1.5 inch claws. They can jump on your back and bite you in the neck (it could even be a play bite), severing your vertebrae and killing you instantly. Tigers, no matter how cute and cuddly they look, can kill you easily. They are incredibly strong and unpredictable and can kill you even when they are playing.
The six subspecies of tigers (Panthera tigris):
Sumatran, critically endangered, found only on the Indonesian island of Sumatra
Bengal, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutran, and Burma
White Bengal, occurs naturally only once in every 10,000 births
Indochinese, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Thailand
Malayan, southern tip of Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia, and
Siberian, Russia and at the Russia-China border
Incidents continue to occur throughout the U.S. After the incident in eastern Ohio in October 2011, the Humane Society of the United States urged Ohio to "immediately issue emergency restrictions on the sale and possession of dangerous wild animals. "
Update Feb. 6, 2013 -- SARASOTA - Over the weekend, a 35-year-old tiger trainer lost his life in Mexico when one of the big cats attacked him during a circus performance. Alexander Suarez died from bite wounds and a loss of blood. A member of the crowd managed to capture the attack on camera. The video has since gone viral.
"How many incidents must we catalogue before the state takes action to crack down on private ownership of dangerous exotic animals?" Humane Society Wayne Pacelle asks.
The only way to save tigers from being overbred and abandoned and at the same time keep the citizens of Texas and other states safe from tiger attack is to make it unlawful for private citizens to breed or possess a tiger.