Big cats and wildlife trade
This past month, as we marked the one-year anniversary of the United States shutting down due to COVID-19, many people have been reflecting on where we were at the start of the pandemic. It was a fraught time in many ways, and people sought distraction. What they found was the Netflix series Tiger King.
In 2009, the hit movie The Hangover brought awareness that celebrities like Mike Tyson owned big cats like the tiger featured in the film. A tragic event in October 2011 made Americans all too aware that non-celebrities had large collections of dangerous exotic animals as well, as a Zanesville, Ohio man released his animals into the countryside. And in 2020, Tiger King brought the wildlife trade back into our homes and minds with dramatic flair, just as a pandemic that may have its roots in the wildlife trade changed all of our lives forever. Timing is everything.
One of the best parts of working at the Zoo is getting to speak with visitors about animals, and that includes the conservation issues that affect their species. The Zoo was closed at the height of Tiger King fame, but when we reopened, visitors arrived with a lot of questions about the wildlife trade, both here in the United States and abroad. As Americans, we often think of the wildlife trade as an international problem, but not one that we are actively participating in. Many viewers of the series had been surprised to learn that several states have little to no laws regulating the private ownership of big cats. Because of this patchwork of laws, it is currently unknown how many tigers may be living in the United States, but many believe it may exceed the number left in the wild (Nyphus, 2010).
The definition of “big cat” is a little murky, but usually refers to species in the genus Panthera, which includes tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards. These large felines get a lot of attention in the pet trade because they are so obviously dangerous, but there is a thriving trade in smaller cats in the United States as well. In addition to wild species such as the lynx, bobcat, cougar, and serval, all of which are common in the exotic pet trade, there is an extremely profitable market breeding “domestic hybrids.” There are several types of these, but the most common is a Bengal, created when an Asian leopard cat (Felix bengalensis) is bred with a domestic house cat. It’s no housecat, though! Animal sanctuaries are inundated with calls from Bengal owners wanting to surrender their cats due to often having traits that make them unsuitable as pets, including refusal to use a litterbox, aggressive protectiveness over one caregiver, and frequent expensive health issues (Wildcat Sanctuary, 2019).
The wildlife trade does not consist only of live animals, however. Big cat pelts, claws, whiskers, and meat are also sold illegally as trophies, tourist souvenirs, or exotic meals. The common denominator in all of this trade is that it centers around money. As we know, all animals have intrinsic value, but unfortunately, monetary values are placed on them as well. The illegal wildlife trade is often paired with other criminal activity and can prove very profitable. It is currently listed as the fourth largest type of international crime (WWF/Dalberg, 2012). However, it comes at a cost to the communities that live near the animals’ native habitats. The lost income from potential eco-tourism adds up to millions of dollars each year (Naidoo, 2016). Ecosystems also suffer as they are thrown off-balance.
Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) zoos are doing their utmost to thwart the illegal wildlife trade from all possible sides. They financially support organizations patrolling and protecting animal habitats, provide sustainable, alternative sources of income for local communities that may otherwise resort to poaching as a livelihood, promote change in consumer behaviors, and work with governments and corporations to prevent successful trade of illegal wildlife materials.
One piece of legislation supported by the AZA to prevent the illegal wildlife trade of tigers and other big cats is the Big Cat Public Safety Act. This law has currently been passed by the U.S. House of representatives and awaits its day in the U. S. Senate. If enacted, it would restrict the possession of big cats to qualified facilities such as AZA zoos. This law could prevent the suffering of many big cats at substandard facilities and the part they play in the illegal wildlife trade.
So what can you do to fight the illegal wildlife trade of big cats?
⦁ Call, write, or email your local congresspeople to let them know that you want them to support the Big Cat Public Safety Act and other measures of law protecting wild animals.
⦁ Do your research before supporting any facility that has big cats. An easy way to know you are supporting a location with great standards of care is to look for the AZA logo on their website. If they are accredited by the AZA, you can be sure those animals are well taken care of and that there is a plan for their care for their entire lifespan.
⦁ Avoid attractions that allow photo opportunities in the same space with big cats or cubs with no barriers present. Not only is this practice dangerous for both you and the animal, but USDA guidelines recommend these types of interactions only occur while the cub is between 8 and 12 weeks of age (Whitney, 2019). This causes a need for that facility to continually breed cubs in order to profit from “cub petting” photos, resulting in excess adult tigers that are sold to private owners with unknown standards of care, or whose outcomes are entirely obscured to the public.
⦁ If you see someone on social media posing with a big cat cub, kindly let them know that their 15 minutes of fun may be unintentionally contributing to a lifetime of animal abuse. Most people just don’t know, and sharing what we learn can make a difference.
Although the wildlife trade continues to contribute to the decline of big cat populations, there has been some good news lately! In 2017, the snow leopard was moved from Endangered to Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List (McCarthy et al., 2017). While their numbers are still decreasing, it’s at a slower rate than originally believed, meaning we have more time to act to save them! Additionally, according to a recent National Geographic article, jaguars may be making a return to part of their former range in Arizona (Main, 2021). In South Africa, religious groups who once used leopard pelts as a part of their ceremonial dress have switched to using faux fur and pelts (National Geographic, 2018). When you do your part, you make this good news for big cats and their habitats possible!
Let’s sum up the ways you can help again:
1. Only purchase souvenirs that contain no wild animal parts while traveling.
2. Contact your congresspeople and ask them to support the Big Cat Public Safety Act.
3. Visit AZA-accredited zoos.
4. Avoid attractions that offer hands-on opportunities with big cat cubs or allow visitors to be in the same space without barriers with a big cat. Respectfully educate others when they post photos from these attractions.
Nyphus, P., & Hutchins, M. (2010). Tigers of the world the science, politics and conservation of panthera tigris. In 1277673499 942937517 R. Tilson (Author), Tigers of the world the science, politics and conservation of panthera tigris (Second ed., pp. 223-238). Amsterdam: Elsevier/Academic Press. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-8155-1570-8.00017-7
What is a hybrid wild cat and do they make good pets? (2019, August 12). Retrieved March 28, 2021, from https://www.wildcatsanctuary.org/education/species/hybrid-domestic/what-is-a-hybrid-domestic/
WWF / Dalberg. 2012. Fighting illicit wildlife trafficking: A consultation with governments. WWF International, Gland, Switzerland.
Naidoo, R. et al. Estimating economic losses to tourism in Africa from the illegal killing of elephants. Nat. Commun. 7, 13379 doi: 10.1038/ncomms13379 (2016).
Whitney, M. (2019, January 17). Tigers rescued from CUB petting operation, Part 1. Retrieved March 29, 2021, from https://www.ifaw.org/journal/tigers-rescued-cub-petting-operation-part
McCarthy, T., Mallon, D., Jackson, R., Zahler, P. & McCarthy, K. 2017. Panthera uncia. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T22732A50664030. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-2.RLTS.T22732A50664030.en. Downloaded on 29 March 2021.
Main, D. (2021, March 23). Why a New Jaguar sighting near the ARIZONA-MEXICO border gives experts hope. Retrieved March 29, 2021, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/jaguar-near-arizona-border-wall-mexico
Furs for life: a leopard saved (2018, March 23). Retrieved March 28, 2021 from https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2018/03/23/furs-for-life-a-leopard-saved/
–Michelle E., Keeper III, Mammals, and Zach Stich, Zoo Educator