A Trail of Tears: Big Cat Ownership

"Here we go again," I thought as I hung up the phone. Another private owner has eight tigers and can't afford to care for them anymore. "Where can we possibly put them this time?"

A week later a team of rescuers is on site, but not before countless hours of planning. Calls fly among sanctuaries to see who might have room. Someone else is lining up a vet team to tranquilize and perform an exam, acquiring permits and other paperwork to take the animals across state lines. Another team member is obtaining climate-controlled trailers to accommodate the long trek to the cats' new homes. And then there's funding. It takes a significant amount of money to build new enclosures, bring in teams, and pay for drugs, vaccinations, fuel, and other necessities for the move. These are just some of the logistics involved in finding these animals adequate lifetime care.

Often, the team arrives to a heartbreaking scenario. A tearful owner will take us to their backyard (or basement!) where a tiger or two (or three!) will be living in cramped conditions with nothing to do all day but pace the five or six steps it has to reach each end of the muddy, dirty enclosure. The owner tries to explain: "I got caught up bidding on it at an animal auction," or, "If I didn't take it, then it would have been killed," or, "You should have seen how it was living before I took it."

And so we spend the day preparing the animal for transport. We load up and drive away, absolving the owner of any further responsibility. Most times there are no ramifications for the owner. It's legal to own a big cat in many states, and owners typically assume that when they can't take care of the animal anymore, a zoo or a sanctuary will gladly accept it. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case; there is no room for more.

Many exotic animal owners will say to me, "It's my right to own whatever I want. It's not hurting anyone else." But it is hurting someone else.

Tigers and other big cats are expensive to own and require specialist care, diets, and housing that the average pet owner simply cannot provide. Animals often suffer terribly and also may end up going back into trade, roadside attractions, or unauthorized pseudo-"sanctuaries."

Owning a big cat also has the potential to hurt people. Big cats are wild by nature and rely on instinct for survival. When individuals purchase and raise big cats from infancy, the animals' behavior is often misconstrued as friendly and defenseless. But the innate behaviors of big cats will continue to develop as they would in the wild, leading to unpredictable onsets of fatally aggressive behavior. Significant amounts of time can go by before an animal displays aggression, which can be triggered by a very small event.

It hurts accredited sanctuaries because they feel obligated to take on yet another animal when they are already at or beyond capacity. Unfortunately, there are currently not enough accredited facilities to deal with unwanted exotic cats once private owners realize that they can no longer take responsibility for their "pet." It costs over $10,000 a year to take care of these animals, and they often live up to 20 years or more. That means sanctuaries have to fundraise like crazy to try to stay afloat.

And it hurts the owner. Human caretakers often think of themselves as surrogate parents and develop close bonds with the animal. However, the bonds that human caretakers form are fulfilling an emotional, human need within them, not within the animal, whose need is to socialize with members of its own species. Having to say goodbye to their "pet" is heartbreaking for them.

The only real solution to the problem of keeping big cats as pets is a complete ban on the buying, selling, breeding, owning, and trading of wild animals -- with a possible exception made in circumstances where there is a genuine and realistic plan to reintroduce the species to the wild in a country where the species naturally thrives. Pending legislation, such as the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, would go a long way toward making this a reality. Only then will this trail of tears end.

For more information on IFAW's big cat rescue work, please watch the following:


Java, Bali, and Titan are captive tigers who have all had several homes over their lives. Each rescued from tough situations, they find sanctuary at Wild Animal Orphanage (WAO) in San Antonio, Texas, and become instant friends. But hard economic times touch not only people. WAO is forced to close, and now the tigers need new homes... again. What does it take to move almost two tons of wild cat some 1,400 miles and re-habituate them? "Removed" tells the story of Java, Bali, and Titan, as well as the people who care for these beautiful yet discarded creatures, all the while shedding light on the little-known world of captive tigers in America.

"Confessions of a Big Cat Owner"

The overwhelming responsibility of caring for a big cat is too often overlooked. Making the right choice and finding suitable sanctuaries for them to live out their lives is emotionally tough for owners. In this video, big cat owner Denise Flores talks about the realities of owning tigers and a cougar and the reason that she now has to say goodbye to the animals she has grown to love.