America’s tiger problem

India leaps into his pool, pouncing on a purple plastic egg—his favorite toy, according to his caregivers. After a few minutes, the tiger ambles over to his watering tub. Instead of taking a drink, he plops in and closes his eyes in contentment. Although he’s young—roughly 10 months old on this June day—the massive paws hanging over his tub are a reminder of how strong he already is and how much larger he will become.

With room to roam and places to swim, India has lived a dramatically different life over the past few months than the one he used to know. Before his May arrival at the Humane Society of the United States’ Black Beauty Ranch in Murchison, Texas, India was kept as a pet in a private home. Many details of his prior life are unknown, but videos of people bottle-feeding him and the bejeweled collar he wore when he was rescued indicate how different his life was from that of wild tigers—and his life at the sanctuary.

Countless tigers like India live in roadside zoos, circuses, and private homes across the country. No one knows exactly how many captive tigers there are in America, as no federal agency keeps track of these animals. The vast majority of these tigers spend their lives in cruel conditions where they cannot express their natural behaviors. Although private owners and roadside zoos may claim their captive tigers help conservation efforts, these animals are usually habituated to humans and unlikely to survive if ever released into the wild. Many tigers are crossbred between subspecies who would not interbreed in the wild.
In March 2020, the captive tiger problem gained mainstream attention with the Netflix series Tiger King, which followed the antics of U.S. roadside zoo operators. As the show’s human stars gained notoriety due to their eccentric personalities, animal advocates warned that the series glossed over the abuse endured by the big cats at these zoos.

More than a year later, many of the operators featured in Tiger King are now facing legal troubles for mistreating their animals, and viewers of the series are seeing the dark side of private tiger ownership: So far in 2021, authorities have seized three pet tigers from Texas neighborhoods.

Among them was India, rescued by authorities in May after a viral video showed the tiger wandering the streets of Houston. Just a few months earlier, Elsa was seized by the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office after deputies responded to a call about a crying animal and found the 6-month-old tiger living in an outdoor cage in freezing temperatures. She was wearing a harness and had rubbed her forehead raw on the bars. Elsa also found a permanent home at Black Beauty Ranch (“A home for Elsa,” Summer 2021).

With the two newcomers, the sanctuary is now home to three tigers rescued from the pet trade. Loki arrived first, in February 2019, after being found in an abandoned Houston home, living in a cage so small he could barely move (“The tiger next door,” September/October 2019).

Photo of Loki the tiger laying in the grass.
True to his name, Loki loves to cause a little mischief at Black Beauty Ranch.
All three tigers’ stories garnered media attention and public interest. Noelle Almrud, senior director at the sanctuary, says these high-profile events have increased public awareness of America’s tiger problem.

“Most people think it is ridiculous to have a tiger in somebody’s house, but you wouldn’t have heard about it before,” Almrud says. Now, though, “it’s hitting the news and people are appropriately outraged.”

What people don’t always see is the behind-the-scenes work that happens even after a tiger is rescued. Caring for tigers requires advanced expertise and resources that are nearly impossible for private owners to replicate. Almrud estimates that a single tiger’s care—including veterinary services, food, enrichment and more—costs the sanctuary $25,000 a year.

Most private owners don’t provide veterinary care, says Dr. Debbie Myers, director of veterinary medicine at Black Beauty Ranch, and some even subject their tigers to painful claw or tooth removals in a misguided and unsuccessful attempt to make them safer to handle. And most people don’t know what tigers need to stay healthy, such as parasite prevention. India arrived at the sanctuary with a host of parasites. He, along with Elsa and Loki, now receive routine preventative medication.

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India leaps into his pool, pouncing on a purple plastic egg—his favorite toy, according to his caregivers. After a few minutes, the tiger ambles over to his watering tub. Instead of taking a drink, he plops in and closes his eyes in contentment. Although he’s young—roughly 10 months old on this June day—the massive paws…

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