The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week issued guidance making clear that exhibitors violate the Animal Welfare Act by allowing members of the public to handle or feed tiger cubs, as well as lions, cheetahs, jaguars or leopards under 4 weeks old.
The guidance is in response to a 2012 legal petition filed by The Humane Society of the United States, World Wildlife Fund, Detroit Zoological Society, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Born Free USA, Big Cat Rescue, Fund for Animals and Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.
“We applaud USDA for taking this first step to put roadside zoos and the public on notice that federal law prohibits using infant cubs for photographic opportunities and interactive experiences,” Anna Frostic, senior attorney for wildlife & animal research at The Humane Society of the United States, stated in a news release issued on April 5.
The petition said dozens of facilities across the country routinely breed and acquire exotic feline species — all of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act — to produce a supply of cubs for profit.
“Both animals and people are put in harm’s way when big cats are used for public contact exhibition – young cubs are particularly susceptible to disease, especially when deprived of necessary maternal care, and cubs quickly grow into dangerous predators that can cause serious injury to adults and children,” said Jeff Flocken, North America regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
In contrast to zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, “there are thousands of big cats in private menageries in the U.S. and these facilities do not have the resources or expertise to safely and responsibly care for dangerous wild animals,” Ron Kagan, executive director and CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society, stated in the news release. Conservation professionals agree that endangered and threatened species like tigers, lions, and apes should not be bred for commercial purposes.
“The insatiable demand for cubs and baby primates used at interactive exhibits fuels a vicious cycle of breeding and exploitation. It is standard in this horrific industry to separate babies from their mothers, and then discard them when they grow too big for handling,” Adam M. Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, added in the news release.
The propagation of tigers in the United States has resulted in a captive population that is nearly twice the number of tigers that exist in the wild, according to The HSUS.
“Cubs used for petting, if they survive, typically spend many years living in substandard facilities and the few who are lucky enough to eventually end up at good sanctuaries typically arrive with medical issues caused by deficient care,” said Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue.
In addition to these animal welfare, public safety and conservation concerns, “the surplus of exotic animals in roadside zoos and other substandard facilities puts an enormous financial burden on the accredited sanctuaries that provide lifetime care for abandoned and seized animals,” according to Michael Markarian, president of The Fund for Animals.
Investigations have revealed that using tiger cubs for photo ops and play sessions can yield over $20,000 per month for a roadside zoo, fueling demand for more and more cubs – but once the cats mature, their future is uncertain. “There is just not enough space or resources at accredited sanctuaries to support the demand created by this irresponsible breeding,” said Kellie Heckman, executive director of Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.
Editor’s note: This report was updated on April 8.