According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, there are an estimated 10,000 big cats, including lions tigers and leopards, living in roadside zoos and backyard menageries in the United States.
These facilities offer their owners, and at times the public, the unique opportunity to interact with big cats in ways accredited zoos won’t permit, like the chance to feed a cub or take a “selfie” with an adult tiger or lion.
While a picture may last a lifetime, so does the abuse and neglect these animals often endure behind the scenes. In addition to the harm done to the animals, there are also very real health and safety concerns for the people involved.
The Illegal Wildlife Trade
There are currently more tigers being held in captivity in the U.S. than there are in the wild. This may come as a surprise, but big cats like tigers and lions are not native to the United States. Naturally, this begs the question: How did thousands of these animals come to live here?
The illegal wildlife trade is an incredibly lucrative business, and consumer demand perpetuates the poaching of wild animals for sale on the black market. Many are captured from the wild when they’re young, while others are bred in captivity here in the United States and bid on by exhibitors at exotic animal auctions.
According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, “Private possession and breeding of prohibited wildlife species contributes to the interstate traffic in those species and may contribute to illegal international wildlife trade…There is no way to know how many U.S.-born big cats are disposed of or when their parts are illegally sold into black market trade.”
Treatment of Big Cats
Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates the public exhibition of wild animals, public contact with wild animals is not actively monitored.
According to Born Free, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines state that public contact with big cats between 8 to 12 weeks is authorized, whereas interactions with adults is prohibited. However, undercover investigations by the Humane Society of the United States discovered at least 70 exhibitors in 25 states were currently, or had recently, engaged in the dangerous practice of allowing the public to handle mature adult cats.
In terms of private ownership, it is the responsibility of the owner to establish and maintain public contact standards both for the safety of the animal and the visitors.
Sadly, most owners and handlers are not properly trained to care for the dietary, mental and physical needs of large wild carnivores. To make matters worse, animal exhibitors frequently tell the public that the big cats in their care have been domesticated because they were hand-reared. In doing so, they suggest that wild animals are naturally docile or content interacting with humans in captivity. In reality, a number of undercover investigations have provided evidence that abuse in roadside zoos is rampant and animals are often coerced into submission through fear tactics.
Public Health Concerns
Interactions with cubs and adults runs the risk of injury to untrained handlers and to the public. In the past two decades, dangerous incidents involving captive big cats have lead to the deaths of 24 people, five of which were children. In addition, a reported 200 people have been mauled or seriously injured by big cats.
While cubs may physically be less dangerous than their adult counterparts, they can still catch and carry diseases. Young cubs do not have fully developed immune systems and are susceptible to contracting ailments.
An undercover investigation from the Humane Society of the United States found a number of tiger cubs at a roadside zoo facility were infected with Coccidia and Giardia, both of which can be passed to humans through direct contact. Ringworm is another common concern associated with handling tiger cubs. Although both of these diseases can be found in domesticate animals as well, most handlers at roadside zoos do NOT go out of their way to inform visitors of the potential health risks.
How to Help Big Cats
In 2014, New York State banned direct contact between the public and big cats. Furthermore, any animal exhibitor not in compliance with the law is subject to a fine. Currently, New York is the only state to prohibit direct contact with big cats.
Other states have laws regulating the private ownership of big cats (and other wild animals) and the standards of care for them, but there are no penalties for attractions that allow the public to pose with them for a picture.
In April 2015, The Wildcat Sanctuary submitted a letter to the USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack requesting that the USDA consider a nationwide ban prohibiting direct contact between the public and big cats.
For more information: Ban Big Cat Handling