A few hours before sundown on October 18, 2011, law enforcement officials in Zanesville, Ohio, received a strange 911 call: The neighbor of a man named Terry Thompson had spotted a black bear running loose on Thompson’s property—then a large male lion. As police officials drove toward the scene, they began spotting other large carnivores. The area was residential, and there was a school soccer game happening nearby, so the officers were ordered to shoot the animals. By the following morning, they had killed six bears, 17 lions, and a slew of other wild creatures—including 18 tigers. Thompson had released all of them from the enclosures in his yard before committing suicide.
The Zanesville incident was so bizarre and horrific that it made international headlines. But it was also a rude awakening to the fact that many people in the US own exotic animals, including Panthera tigris. There are thousands of captive tigers throughout the country. You can find them in backyard enclosures, petting zoos, and even truck stops. They outnumber the tigers believed to remain in the wild today. And beyond the problems their captivity poses in the US, it’s putting their wild counterparts at risk.
Estimated number of captive tigers in the US
Leigh Henry, WWF’s senior policy advisor for wildlife conservation, says she first became aware of the issue around 2006. “I was working on WWF’s TRAFFIC team at the time,” Henry says. “An organization called Save the Tiger Fund approached us and said, ‘We’re concerned about captive tigers in the US. Nobody knows much about them. If we get you some funding, could you do a study?’”
With the help of a consultant, Henry put together the first comprehensive report on tiger ownership in the US. The results of their research were jarring. Not only did there appear to be roughly 5,000 captive tigers across the country, but the vast majority of those cats—about 95%—were, like Thompson’s tigers, privately owned. That total is just an estimate, Henry adds. “No one can say for certain, because the US actually has no comprehensive system for monitoring captive tigers.”
Instead, Henry found regulations that were patchy and riddled with loopholes. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), for example, required permits for certain activities that would normally be prohibited under the Endangered Species Act (such as breeding tigers or transporting them across state lines). But at the time, the FWS exempted generic tigers—tigers with genes from multiple subspecies—from those rules. “Generic tigers are basically mutts, for lack of a better word,” Henry says. “Since they aren’t genetically pure, they don’t have conservation value to the FWS. But most of the tigers in the US are generic.” So the FWS wasn’t monitoring them.
The USDA, meanwhile, required exhibitor licenses for tigers that were being shown to the public—whether for free or for profit—but not for tigers that people simply wanted to keep privately as pets. Many states banned private possession of the cats, but still exempted anyone with a USDA license. A handful of others allowed possession with a state-issued permit, and several had no barriers whatsoever.