Big Cat Rescue

A dangerous playdate: kids cuddle cubs at Japanese safari park

This morning, I came across a video on MSN with the headline, “don’t try this in a couple of years” and teaser, “visitors at a Japanese safari park get up close & personal with lions, & it’s safe — for now.” A screenshot displays a toddler posing with a lion cub.

I’ve written a few posts now focusing on the issue of interaction between humans and exotic animals. Around the same time I launched this blog, I visited Big Cat Rescue, an accredited sanctuary that doesn’t allow interaction with cats and encourages visitors to avoid venues that do. So obviously, this video piqued my interest.

While adorable lion cubs roll around on screen, a narrator explains that at this park, which is located near Tokyo, visitors are allowed to play with the cubs, who were born in March. Zookeepers claim that until the cubs are 3-months-old, it’s safe for humans to play with them. Then, a man wearing a lion hat says (with translation in voiceover) that he would love to raise a lion cub, except that it’d be too expensive to feed one. We then see his son in the background, petting the cute little cubs.

Don’t get me wrong, I was completely enamored by the site of the baby lions, too. They look downright cuddly. But I’m curious about the effect that this environment has on them. Apparently, when they’re old enough to start fending for themselves, they’ll join the rest of the lion pride at the park. I feel as though being exposed to crowds of people petting them and snapping photos of them on a regular basis has to influence the cubs’ behavior in some way. And “safe” is a little vague. Safe for who, exactly? From the testimony given in the video, it appears as though allowing visitors to “get up close and personal” with the cats gives people the false impression that the exotic cats could be treated as pets, rather than as the wild animals that they are.

This fact sheet, created by Big Cat Rescue, reveals additional issues with cub handling, including:

  • Health risk for cubs: Cubs are most vulnerable to disease transmission from birth to 12 weeks.
  • Health risk for humans: When young animals experience high levels of stress, they are more likely to “shed pathogens.” Humans are at risk of getting bacterial infections, ringworm, E. coli, Toxoplasmosis, Staphylococcus, and Streptococcus as a result of bites and scratches or kids sticking their fingers in their mouths after petting the cubs.

BCR reports that in the U.S., there is a “4 week gap” where the public can handle big cat cubs — when they’re between the ages of 8 weeks and 12 weeks. Policy enacted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains that “tiger cubs under 8 weeks are too young for public exhibition and cubs over 12 weeks are too dangerous for public exposure.” However, BCR proposes imposing stricter policies and methods of enforcement to end the practice of big cat cub handling altogether.

Therefore, I don’t think “don’t try this in a couple of years” is a sufficient disclaimer for the above-mentioned video. How about: Don’t try this, ever.

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Lions and tigers and bears… in your backyard?

When I was little, my parents got me a subscription to National Geographic magazine. I’ve always been an animal lover and avid reader, and I was captivated by the vibrant, stunning images of wildlife. Sadly, I’m no longer a subscriber (which I plan to change, immediately). But I did have the chance to read this month’s issue, which included a thought-provoking article on people who keep exotic animals as pets.

Writer Lauren Slater reveals, “It’s believed that more exotic animals live in American homes than are cared for in American zoos.” That’s a startling idea. This past weekend I visited Big Cat Rescue (you can find my blog post about it here) and met several exotic cats that had been kept as pets.

According to the article, “Privately owning exotic animals is currently permitted in a handful of states with essentially no restrictions: You must have a license to own a dog, but you are free to purchase a lion or baboon and keep it as a pet.” During my tour at BCR, our guide revealed that in Florida, you don’t have to tell your neighbor that you have a pet tiger. Or even if that pet tiger escapes.

Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, is quoted in the article: “The worst offenders are the tiger petting zoos that churn out 200 cubs a year so people can have their picture taken with them.”

At the raucous auctions held in muddy fields or paved parking lots, auctioneers hold out adorable tiger cubs with scrumptious soft scruffs or display tiny chimps in baseball hats and T-shirts that say, “I (heart) you.” But people don’t realize that all too soon that adorable tiger will outgrow its role as family pet and end up confined in a chain link enclosure.

When I was in ninth grade, my high school hosted a jungle-themed homecoming dance. A little white tiger was brought in, and for 5 dollars, students could pose next to him in the gym and have their pictures taken. At the time, I thought this was extremely cool, and I bragged about it to all my friends.

Now, though, I know better, and I’m horrified that the school played a role in perpetuating this ongoing problem. At BCR, I learned that white tigers bred for show can only be used for 8-12 weeks, after which many are killed. Many are given laxatives to keep their weight down and forced to stay awake for extended periods of time.

I wonder what became of the little tiger who attended our dance – what kind of conditions he was kept in and where he ended up when he grew too big to be hauled around to events and put on display.

As much as seeing exotic animals brings me joy, I know that they’re not here for my entertainment. I get joy from interacting with them in alternative ways, like taking tours of accredited sanctuaries, supporting animal rights legislation by signing petitions and sharing my newfound knowledge with others.

It might sound cool to own an exotic pet, like a kangaroo or a chimpanzee, but these wild animals are not meant to live in a backyard or garage, and the ramifications of keeping them as pets are severe, both for humans and animals.

In Citrus Park, at Big Cat Rescue, Cameron the lion sleeps tonight

Yesterday I went on an adventure to explore Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit educational sanctuary located in Tampa, FL. The 69-acre sanctuary, which houses over 100 exotic big cats, is sandwiched between Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill and a McDonald’s. Across the street is a Westfield mall and Citrus Park Plaza. But as soon as you make the turn onto Easy Street, a narrow, gravel pathway hidden between the trees, it feels like you’re in the middle of the jungle.

Our tour guide, Ciara, is an intern who lives on property. After we watched a short orientation video, she led us outside to meet the cats. It was astonishing to see how many came to BCR as abandoned pets. Ciara introduced us to Doodles, Zimba, Santino and Zouletta – African servals who had lived in their owner’s basement in New York for 12 years.

Serval

One of the most touching stories was that of Cameron, a lion, and Zabu, a white tigress. The two were raised together at a roadside zoo and now live together in a 3-acre “cat-a-tat” that was designed specifically for them. Cameron was slumbering away entirely undisturbed as we walked by.

Cameron

People often attempt to breed lions and tigers to create “ligers,” but hybridization leads to major health problems in offspring, so Cameron was given a vasectomy to prevent him from breeding with Zabu. White tigers are also a result of hybridization – they don’t exist in the wild. BCR encourages people to refuse to visit attractions that place white tigers on display to prevent this abusive inbreeding from continuing.

At the end of the tour, I was given the chance to sign a petition and make a call to my state senators to support The Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, which aims to prohibit the private possession of exotic big cats. This bill has been introduced as HR 1998 in the House and S 1308 in the Senate. You can take action, too, by signing the online petition.

If you’re ever in the Tampa area, I definitely recommend taking a trip to Big Cat Rescue. It was fun and informative, and most importantly, by purchasing a tour ticket, you’re directly helping the cats. Sign up for a tour here.