In recent days the country has been captivated by the search for an escaped tiger in a Houston neighborhood. But the occurrence is not as exotic as one might think.
There are more tigers in captivity in the United States than in the wild around the world, experts say.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates about 5,000 of the big cats live in captivity around the country, although animal welfare experts say precise numbers are hard to find. That’s compared to the roughly 3,900 wild tigers left in the world, experts estimate.
Most of the tigers in the US are held in backyards, breeding facilities and at small theme parks or roadside attractions, the WWF says. Only about 6% are at accredited zoos, the group says.
“The United States has a responsibility to manage the staggering 5,000 estimated captive tigers within its own borders,” Leigh Henry, the WWF’s director of wildlife policy, told CNN.
The actual number of tigers in captivity in the US is probably higher because hundreds are bred each year as props for wild animal attractions, says Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, the Florida animal sanctuary made famous by the Netflix series “Tiger King.”
Private ownership of tigers and other big cats has long been criticized by animal advocates as reckless and inhumane.
“Many of these private tiger owners aren’t properly trained to care for wild animals, making the animals vulnerable to mistreatment and exploitation,” the WWF said. “Often these facilities will allow public contact with the tigers, including photo ops and playtimes with tiger cubs.”
“No tiger belongs in a backyard or basement,” Baskin told CNN this week when asked about the missing tiger in Houston. “The only reason that people have tigers as pets is to try to show off to others.”
In many states it’s legal to keep a tiger in your backyard
The Humane Society says a lack of uniform laws makes exotic animals easily accessible in many states.
People must obtain a license from the US Department of Agriculture to own tigers for commercial purposes, although no such federal requirements exist for those who want to keep the animals as pets.
With no umbrella federal law, possession of wild animals in the US falls under a patchwork of state regulations.
Some 20 states ban private ownership of large exotic animals like big cats. Other states require residents to obtain a permit to own such animals.
And others, including Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin, have no laws against keeping dangerous wild animals as pets.
In Texas, a resident can own a tiger if they have a certificate of registration issued by the local animal control office and at least $100,000 of liability insurance to pay for property damage or injuries. The restrictions don’t apply to accredited zoos and aquariums.
Escaped big cats are not an uncommon sight
Sightings of escaped big cats have made numerous headlines. There have been nearly 800 incidents involving captive exotic cats in the US since 1990, said Baskin of Big Cat Rescue.
In February, authorities in Texas rescued a tiger during a snowstorm near San Antonio. They named her “Elsa” after the character in the Disney movie “Frozen.” Elsa was someone’s pet and was wearing a harness when she was found in freezing temperatures, officials said.
The owners were cited for a misdemeanor and the tiger was taken to an animal sanctuary.
In 2011 the owner of a wild animal preserve in Zanesville, Ohio, let loose dozens of tigers, lions, bears and other large animals, leaving them to wander through nearby woods and neighborhoods. What followed was a night of terror and chaos as authorities shot and killed 49 of the animals – including 18 tigers and 17 lions – to protect nearby residents.
As a result of the incident, Ohio passed a law that bans possession of a dangerous wild animals, including big cats. People who owned them prior to 2014 had to register the animals with the state and comply with safety regulations.
A proposed federal law would bar private ownership of exotic animals
In December, the US House of Representatives passed a bill, the Big Cat Public Safety Act, to keep unlicensed people from owning tigers, lions, jaguars and other wild animals.
The legislation was introduced after “Tiger King,” the popular docuseries about an eccentric keeper of big cats in Oklahoma, drew attention to the issue.
“Big cats are wild animals that simply do not belong in private homes, backyards, or shoddy roadside zoos,” said Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois, the bill’s main author.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a Senate version of the bill last month.
“The current regulation of big cats in the United States is a patchwork of state laws; it requires a federal solution in order to safeguard public safety, promote animal welfare and wildlife conservation, and combat illegal wildlife trafficking,” the New York City Bar Association wrote in support of the proposed federal measure.
The US in 2016 tightened regulations around ownership of captive tigers under the Endangered Species Act, making it difficult for tigers to be ensnared in illegal wildlife trade.
The US has been a leader in global wildlife conservation, but it’s not done enough to keep tabs on its tiger population and ensure it’s not contributing to illegal trade, said Henry of the World Wildlife Fund.
The WWF hopes the Big Cat Public Safety Act will help end private ownership of the animals.
“Passing the BCPSA will make quick progress on an issue that has suffered government inaction for far too long and will empower the US to answer important questions like how many tigers live here, where they are, when they are sold and traded, and what happens to their valuable parts when they die,” Henry said.
Without a federal law, the animals will remain vulnerable to mistreatment and exploitation, she said.