In recent days, the United States has been captivated by the search for a tiger that escaped in a Houston neighborhood. However, the fact is not as exotic as we might think.
There are more tigers in captivity in the United States than in nature around the world, experts say.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that nearly 5,000 of these big cats live in captivity in the country, although animal welfare experts say precise numbers are difficult to handle. That number compares to the nearly 3,900 remaining wild tigers in the world, experts estimate.
Most of the tigers in the United States are in backyards, breeding facilities, and in small theme parks or road attractions, the WWF says. Only about 6% are in accredited zoos, the group says.
The actual number of tigers in captivity in the United States may be higher because hundreds are raised each year for wildlife animal attractions, says Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue. This is an animal sanctuary in Florida that became famous by the Netflix series “Tiger King”.
Animal advocates have long criticized private ownership of tigers and other big cats, which calling it reckless and inhumane.
“Many of these private tiger owners are not properly trained to care for wild animals, leaving the animals vulnerable to abuse and exploitation,” WWF said. “Often these facilities allow public contact with tigers, including photoshoots and playtime moments with tiger cubs.”
“No tiger should be in a backyard or basement,” Baskin told CNN this week when she was asked about the missing tiger in Houston. “The only reason people keep tigers as pets is to try to show off to others.”
In many states it’s legal to have a tiger in the backyard
The Humane Society says the lack of uniform laws makes exotic animals easy to access in many states.
People must obtain a license from the Department of Agriculture to keep tigers for commercial purposes, but there are no federal requirements of that type for those who want to keep them as pets.
Without a federal umbrella law, the possession of wild animals is governed by a patchwork of state regulations.
About 20 states prohibit the private ownership of some exotic animals such as big cats. Other states require residents to obtain a permit to own these animals.
And others, including Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, have no laws against keeping dangerous wild animals as pets.
In Texas, a resident may have a tiger if they have a registration certificate issued by the local animal control office and at least $100,000 of liability insurance to pay for property damage or injuries. Restrictions do not apply to accredited zoos and aquariums.
It’s not uncommon to see big felines escaped
Sightings of large escaped felines have made headlines on many occasions. In fact, there have been nearly 800 incidents related to exotic felines in captivity in the United States since 1990, Baskin said of Big Cat Rescue.
In February, Texas authorities rescued a tiger during a snowstorm near San Antonio. She was named “Elsa” after the character in the Disney movie “Frozen”. Elsa was a someone’s pet and she was wearing a harness when it was found in freezing temperatures, authorities said.
The owners were summoned for a misdemeanor and the tiger was taken to an animal sanctuary.
In 2011, the owner of a wild animal reserve in Zanesville, Ohio, released dozens of tigers, lions, bears and other large animals, who roamed the nearby forests and neighborhoods. What followed was a night of terror and chaos in which authorities shot and killed 49 of the animals to protect nearby residents. That total included 18 tigers and 17 lions.
As a result of what happened, Ohio passed a law prohibiting the possession of dangerous wild animals, including big cats.
A federal bill would ban private ownership of exotic animals
In December, the House of Representatives passed the Big Cats Public Safety Bill that seeks to prevent unlicensed people from having tigers, lions, jaguars and other wild animals.
The law came after “Tiger King”, a popular docuserie about a big cat keeper in Oklahoma, drew attention on the subject.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers last month introduced a version of the bill in the Senate.
Moreover, in 2016, the United States tightened regulations on the ownership of captive tigers under the Endangered Species Act, making it difficult for tigers to be trapped in illegal wildlife trading networks.