I haven’t intended for this post to be a follow up to my last one (but the two in some instances go hand in hand), examining the shocking nature of the Asian big cat trade however running into BBC documentary maker Louis Theroux on the train last week reminded me of a documentary aired on the BBC a few years back entitled “America’s most dangerous pets”. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Theroux has, in recent years produced a series of documentaries for the BBC exploring difficult or controversial topics such as drug epidemics in cities such as Las Vegas, Miami’s mega jail and ultra Zionist Jews. There are a number of his documentaries on Netflix for anyone interested in watching them!
Anyway, the combination of this chance meeting, and the publication of a recent news article naming big cats as Dubai’s “latest must have accessory” has persuaded me to dig a little deeper into the big cat pet industry, and the impact it has on the lions and tigers at the centre of the trade.
In doing some research, I came across an article on worldwildlife.org estimating the US pet tiger population to be in the figure of 5000. That’s 1800 more tigers than are estimated to be still living in the wild. The same report also mentions how one exotic pet owner let loose his animals in Zanesville, Ohio causing the deaths of 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, 6 black bears, 2 grizzlies, 3 mountain lions and 2 wolves. I was probably too young to appreciate the scale of incident back in 2011 however that staggering tally of animals killed, as a consequence of just one person’s actions is phenomenal, and is as compelling an example as you could ever possibly get as to why keeping big cats, and large carnivores should best be left to experts in zoos and wildlife parks. The lack of regulation when it comes to keeping exotic pets is quite alarming, and with the average tiger cub costing $2500 (I’m shocked at how low that is), prices aren’t feasibly out of reach for potential owners. I know the upkeep of big cats is a costly business, with bigcatrescue.org highlighting it runs into thousands of dollars however the negligence of owners when purchasing their exotic pets is half the issue.
The sheer number of big cat rescue centres illustrates the vast scale of the problem. Whilst at birth and in their early months lion and tiger cubs appear the perfect pets (to some), as they mature and become, well, more big cat like their size and ferocity becomes too much for many owners to handle. Alongside this, unless carefully managed, and planned for the costs of keeping big cats as pets can spiral out of control with insurance, veterinary bills and the sheer cost of food being among the highest expenses.
In Dubai however, where to a large portion of the population money is among the smallest of problems, the consequences of the latest “craze” are having repercussions on wild populations of big cats. Whilst some big cats owned as pets in Dubai are bred in the country, sizeable numbers of cats are illegally smuggled into the country, contributing to the illegal wildlife trade and its notoriously black economics. It’s perhaps surprising to see that despite the potential danger of owning one, and tumbling wild populations, legislation surrounding the ownership of big cats as pets is worryingly lax.
CITIES (the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) stipulates that in order to be able to keep an endangered or wild animal in your home, you must provide space for free movement of the animal, and the ability for the animal to access water at its own will, with the necessary food also provided at regular intervals. Unfortunately, despite the convention’s best intentions it is often the case that these basic animal rights are not provided. Although not directly relating to big cats, the owner of the animals killed in Ohio, Terry Thompson had been warned repeatedly over the decade before the incident about the conditions he imposed on his animals, and was even arrested for animal cruelty in April 2005.
Whilst you could write an endless list of potential consequences of keeping big cats as pets, for me at least, three major issues stand out. First of these is the effect irresponsible owners have on the welfare of their animals. Whereas in zoos and safari parks captive lions and tigers are well nourished and their veterinary care overseen by trained professionals, lions and tigers kept at pets are at serious risk of becoming malnourished. Only 6% of all tigers in the US are kept in zoos and other accredited wildlife centres, the rest are in private ownership, and although not all of these will be at risk, a sizeable proportion will be. Symptoms of malnourishment for big cats are somewhat similar to those observed in domestic cats and other animals, which include weight loss, muscular weakness and poor coordination.
Another major issue I see with big cat ownership, is that with the lack of legislation and monitoring regarding the breeding of privately owned big cats, the opportunity for the breeding of big cats to supply the illegal wildlife trade can be taken advantage of. With the huge demand for big cat parts and skins (tigers especially), the surplus of pet big cats could in fact be doing an incredible amount of harm to wild populations. Similar to the situation in Dubai where wild big cats are being captured alive at a young age and illegally smuggled across borders to satisfy demand, a surge of tiger parts could lead to increase in demand in south east Asian markets, leading to more tigers being poached from the wild. Something which no-one wants to see.
My biggest worry about keeping big cats as pets is perhaps the most obvious, and that’s the clear threat of safety for everyone involved in the process of keeping a lion or tiger as a pet, and that includes the animals. According to wordwildlife.org, people in many jurisdictions can legally keep a tiger on their property without even having the need to report it to local officials, a situation where I can’t even begin to list the potential hazards. Were a big cat escape its cage and harm a member of the local population, the secondary impacts on big cats would be huge, and in countries where certain species of big cat already posses an unsavoury reputation, wind of further attacks would do conservation efforts no favours at all.
So I guess the bottom line when it comes to pet big cat ownership is don’t do it. On Louis Theroux’s documentary he spent time visiting a keeper who had more than thirty or forty pet tigers and big cats living in cages behind his home ( I can’t remember the exact details however if you watch the documentary you can’t miss what I mean), and this gentlemen swore blind to Theroux that by keeping pet lions and tigers, exotic pet owners were doing the wild populations a favour. As much as I would love to believe that statement I just have to disagree. I fail to see how the keeping of animals which could potentially fuel the illegal trade of wild animal parts does wild tigers a favour. I fail to see how keeping an animal for your benefit, even though you lack the necessary resources and finances to adequately ensure its welfare is doing any wild population any favours. And I fail to see how keeping and breeding wild apex predators for pleasure in local communities, no matter how secure the cages is doing anyone any favours at all.
Whilst the captive breeding of some big cats in inevitable to ensure their continuity and conservation, lets leave it to the professionals who know how best to care for them, it would be doing both the animals and us an incredible favour…..