Titan, Bali and Java, three massive tigers, recently journeyed from a financially struggling Texas shelter to a new home in North Carolina. Driven through the night in the back of a trailer, convivial Titan accepted the change without batting a whisker, while stressed-out Java and Bali protested with booming roars and skittish lunges.
The tigers will never see the jungles of their species’ native Asia, but rather will live out the remainder of their lives in their new Appalachian enclosure.
© M. Booth/I.F.A.W.A tiger being moved to a sanctuary in Indiana.
A new documentary film, “Removed,” tells the tigers’ story. (Its premiere was originally scheduled for Thursday at the third annual New York Wildlife and Conservation Film Festival, but organizers postponed the festival after last week’s hurricane.)
Titan, Mali and Java’s ordeal — shuttling from facility to facility and living in cramped captivity after being rescued from zoos, private homes and failing shelters — is an all-too-familiar situation in the United States, cat activists say.
The implications are far from trivial. More tigers live in private captivity in Texas than in the wild, where conservationists estimate that around 3,000 of the endangered animals remain. No one knows for sure how many big cats — including tigers, lions, panthers, cheetahs, leopards and others — are kept today in backyards and apartments across the United States, but estimates run as high as 20,000. (The Endangered Species Act does not prohibit domestic trade in captive-bred wildlife.)
“Many of these cases are misguided animal enthusiasts who become enamored by a beautiful baby that quickly becomes wild, and then the situation gets out of control,” said Tracy Coppola, a campaigns officer at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
“The animals are often abandoned, relinquished or just kept in very substandard and dangerous conditions because they’re wild animals and people don’t know how to deal with them,” she said.
The Department of Agriculture assumes responsibility for monitoring big cat possession and for inspecting the animals’ facilities, but Ms. Coppola said the department does not have the resources to thoroughly evaluate each situation, meaning that some individual animals are never assessed.
When owners eventually realize that they can no longer care for a big cat — each of which costs upward of $6,000 annually to care for — they often donate it to a sanctuary. But sanctuaries usually lack the resources to care for an influx of animals, and many of these privately financed institutions were hit hard by the recession.
“Sanctuaries are critical and do a lot of public good, but they’re not enough to battle this problem,” Ms. Coppola said.
To address this need, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, along with a coalition of other animal charities, is pushing for legislation that would bolster regulations on big cat ownership in the United States.
Currently, 28 states fully ban big cat possession, yet seven do not address the issue at all, the fund says. The others fall somewhere in between, making for a confusing patchwork of skimpy-to-stringent rules. “If you or I moved to West Virginia, we could basically have a tiger in our backyard with no regulation whatsoever,” Ms. Coppola said.
The proposed legislation, the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, aims to change that. The bill would amend the Lacey Act Amendments of 1981 to explicitly prevent private big cat ownership across the United States. Private pet owners who already owned big cats could keep them as long as they registered them with the Department of Agriculture, but going forward, only zoos or sanctuaries could adopt new felines.
Private owners could no longer breed and auction off their animals, either. The Senate bill, sponsored by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, is currently in the Committee on Environment and Public Works, while two California lawmakers, Representative Buck McKeon, a Republican, and Representative Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat, are sponsoring the House version.
Ms. Coppola and her colleagues lobbied for the legislation not just to protect animals, but to ensure the safety of local communities, too. A major impetus, she said, was the abrupt decision of an exotic animal farm owner in Zanesville, Ohio, to release all of his animals, including 38 large cats, last year. Of the cats, only three leopards survived the ordeal.
While no locals were apparently harmed by the animals, past cases — like the 2005 death of a 17-year-old who was attacked by a Siberian tiger as she was posing for a photo — demonstrate the threat that big cat ownership poses to public safety.
“I’m afraid there’s going to be another Zanesville,” Ms. Coppola said. “We’re trying to phase out the big cat trade and help the U.S.D.A. before that happens.”