National Geographic

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.