On an early Tuesday morning in May 2014, a small army of law enforcement officers, government representatives, and animal welfare experts assembled at JNK’s Call of the Wild Sanctuary in rural Sinclairville, New York. After months of careful planning and logistic maneuvering, they had one goal in mind: get the animals out.
As rescuers marched in, three tigers named Zeus, Kimba, and Keisha lay listless in cages held together by rotting screws and crumbling pieces of plywood. Zeus was ragged, his coat hanging loosely over a skeletal body. Kimba’s claws grew out from her paws in every direction—the result of a botched declawing. A deceased domestic cat, thrown to the tigers for food but left untouched, festered in a haze of flies. Surrounded by piles of weeks-old excrement, another tiger was already dead.
It was one of the biggest seizures of wild animals in New York’s history. After a cancelled United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) license and growing pile of citations became too much to ignore, New York conservation authorities authorized the unannounced removal of Zeus, Kimba, and Keisha, as well as nine other tigers, three lions, three bears, and two wolves from the failing sanctuary.
When officers served the owner of JNK with a warrant for the seizure of her animals, she surrendered her keys but remained off property during the operation. However, her son, Scott Wisniewski, came with his girlfriend to see what was happening to the animals he had grown up with. With tears in his eyes, he said his final goodbye.
“They have my full heart.”
With just a few waves of chicken and beef on a stick, Zeus, Keisha, and Kimba were lured into their transport cages and loaded into a specially adapted animal transport trailer. Less than 24 hours later, they rolled down Interstate-75, comforted by the hum of the highway and darkness of their transport. The family of tigers couldn’t know it, but their 1,200-mile journey to the Sunshine State was almost complete.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that more than 5,000 tigers live in U.S. backyards, roadside zoos, and pseudo-sanctuaries like JNK’s Call of the Wild. That’s almost double the number of tigers left in the wild all around the world. In July of last year, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, a bill that would greatly restrict private ownership of big cats in the US. Animal welfare organizations such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the Humane Society of the United States have thrown their support behind the bill, saying private tiger ownership undermines global conservation efforts and threatens public safety. These groups believe that big cats are too expensive and too complicated for the untrained citizen to own. But the issue is also layered with emotional complication. Owners often form powerful bonds with their animals and to those who welcome big cats into their backyards and basements, the legislation seems far from well founded.
Scott Shoemaker has owned exotic pets for the past 10 years. He currently owns four tigers, two lions, two cougars, an ocelot, and a six-month-old liger on his 10-acre property in southern Nevada. Right now the liger is outside with the dog, but at night she’ll come inside and watch TV with Shoemaker and his partner. They will sit on couches scarred by puncture wounds from mouthing cats.
Shoemaker is a co-founder of Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership (REXANO), a non-profit dedicated to protecting the rights of exotic animal owners. Shoemaker and REXANO do not oppose all government regulations on private ownership of big cats—in fact, they support safety and ethical standards—but they oppose total bans. To them, these animals aren’t public safety concerns or threats to conservation—they’re beloved pets. Shoemaker, a U.S. Army veteran and former Military Intelligence Officer, speaks of his big cats fondly, saying: “They have their own personalities and show their affection in their own ways and you get to know that, especially when you raise them. They’re so much like your kids.”
Shoemaker adopted his big cats in a variety of ways. When the Las Vegas Zoo shut down in 2013, they contacted Shoemaker to take one of their cougars. And when his friend’s tiger and lion bred together, Shoemaker ended up with one of the cubs. He feeds his cats grocery meat from the supermarket and trains them from a young age that humans aren’t toys. When his tigers rub up against the fence, Scott knows they want to be pet.
Rather than promoting exotic pet ownership to the masses, REXANO acts as an informational resource for potential owners. And although Shoemaker is quick to admit that tiger ownership isn’t for everyone, he doesn’t see that as reason to ban it completely.
“Animal rights groups say that most people aren’t capable of caring for these animals and the answer from us is ‘that’s why most people don’t have them,’” he says. “Most people can’t afford or handle a Ferrari; that’s why most people don’t have them.”
Off a main road in the Citrus Park area of north Tampa, Florida, just across the street from a busy Chipotle and a frozen yogurt bar, Big Cat Rescue sits tucked away on 69 acres of sprawling land. With over 100 animals on premises, ranging in size from a 7-pound sandcat named Canyon to a 700-pound tiger nicknamed “Nik,” Big Cat Rescue is one of the largest big cat sanctuaries in the world. Today, it is also home to Zeus and Keisha, two of the tigers rescued from JNK’s Call of the Wild.
For Kimba, the third tiger rescued from JNK, the reprieve came too late. She died a few weeks after arriving at Big Cat Rescue due to a urinary tract infection complicated by E. coli and 20 years of filthy living conditions in Sinclairville. Her death came as a hard blow for the keepers at Big Cat Rescue, who took some solace in the fact that Kimba lived out her last days in comfort.
Most of the animals that arrive at Big Cat Rescue are malnourished, under-stimulated, and in need of medical attention. They’re weak from months, years, and sometimes a lifetime of improper nutrition. They have abscesses on joints rubbed raw from concrete floors—a tiger’s painful version of bed sores. Many have never stepped foot on grass. And although Zeus and Keisha survived their ordeal at JNK and are adjusting to life at Big Cat Rescue, both tigers wear the scars of their past experience. Zeus’s right eye stares out like a glassy marble, the sign of an eye injury that he received no treatment for at JNK. Keisha sports only half of her right ear and a little bobbed tail—injuries keepers suspect were due to her proximity to African lions at JNK.
The USDA only vaguely alludes to the number of feet required to house a big cat; it refers to a size that allows the animal to stand up, turn around, and lie down. For 500-pound tigers, that can translate to life in a cage no bigger than the size of a parking space. Even larger enclosures are cramped for tigers, who would naturally patrol home ranges of several square miles in the wild. And because tigers are naturally solitary creatures, being forced to live and coexist with other big cats can be a major source of stress.
This stress is a daily reality for tigers of owners and exhibitors that try to breed hybrid species like ligers (a combination between a tiger and a lion) or in-breed their tigers. At JNK, this was the case for Kimba—Zeus’s mother—when she was repeatedly bred with Zeus to produce nine other tigers, including Keisha. Some exhibitors in-breed tigers in the hopes of creating a white tiger, but the gene mutation responsible for white coats can also cause a host of other defects, including club feet, cleft palates, spinal deformities, and defective organs. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has publicly condemned the breeding of white tigers for these reasons and because the practice lacks conservation value.
All privately owned tigers in the United States are “generic,” meaning they have been bred from sub-species of tigers (such as Bengal and Siberian) into combinations that would never be found in the wild. This crossbreeding and the fact that white tigers are inbred makes the animals genetically unfit for conservation: no pet tiger in the United States would be a viable candidate to rebound endangered wild populations. As a result, the shuffle boarding of unwanted animals between owners and sanctuaries is a common game.
Every year, Big Cat Rescue is approached by owners and failing sanctuaries desperate to find a new home for their animals. And every year, Big Cat Rescue has to turn away animals because they don’t have the space or resources to care for them. Providing food and basic vet care for a single tiger can cost up to $10,000 per year. Add in intensive care services and emergency surgeries and that bill skyrockets. And considering that tigers can live up to 25 years in captivity, rescuing even a teenage tiger is a huge financial commitment. Still, a decision that makes monetary sense isn’t always easy for the organization. Although they can’t take in all of the animals that they want to, Big Cat Rescue does have a rule of thumb when deciding which animals to accept.
“Our founder says, ‘When we’re asked to take in animals we ask which ones are the sickest and which ones need the most help—and those are the ones we take,’” said Susan Bass, director of public relations for Big Cat Rescue.
Private tiger ownership in the United States is surprisingly commonplace, and the issue has recently garnered national political attention. Experts estimate that there are more than 5,000 tigers living in American backyards and basements—nearly double the number of tigers left in the wild. Some are owned illegally, but due to a myriad of loopholes and exemptions, many are not. Animal welfare groups like International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Humane Society of the United States are working to promote a bill that would greatly restrict private tiger ownership in the US. They agree that private tiger ownership threatens public safety and undermines conservation efforts; in short—that tigers belong in the wild. But for those who own tigers and other big cats, the issue isn’t so cut and dry. Owners often form genuine bonds with their animals—and that complicates things.
In the United States, you can legally own a big cat in five states, including Nevada, no permit or license needed. Fourteen other states allow possession with a permit, and of the 31 states that ban private possession of big cats, all but three exempt those holding USDA exhibitor’s licenses. But the USDA doesn’t have the resources to regulate those licensed as exhibitors and the requirements for receiving a license are surprisingly lax.
“It’s a huge loophole,” Bass says. “The hardest questions on the [USDA] application are name and address. It’s that easy. With that and $40 you or I could have a tiger tomorrow.”
The Big Cats and Safety Protection Act would eliminate the existing patchwork of state laws and loopholes in favor of more consistent federal legislation. Under provisions of the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, Big Cat Rescue, which boasts Charity Navigator’s highest rating and is held as a model sanctuary by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), meets the requirements of a legitimate sanctuary: they do not breed, sell, propagate, or take their animals off premises, and they do not allow public contact with the animals. If the bill passes, Big Cat Rescue and sanctuaries that adhere to the same standards would be allowed to remain in operation.
Current big cat owners would be allowed to keep their animals with the stipulation that they register with the USDA within one year after the bill becomes law, they do not acquire new animals, and they do not breed their current animals. The bill would also exempt certain groups, including zoos accredited by the AZA, wildlife rehabilitators, state colleges and universities, and select traveling circuses in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act. The bill has recently garnered support from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, but REXANO has some problems with the restrictions of the bill.
For Scott Shoemaker—who doesn’t breed his cats and provides them with vet care and enrichment—the ban on private ownership seems unfair. “A lot of these legislations list exemptions for sanctuaries. How does a tax status qualify you to raise big cats?” he asks.
Carson Barylak, Campaigns Officer with IFAW, says this is a common criticism from opponents of the bill. She explains that it’s not about a specific accreditation or tax status for a sanctuary; in fact, the bill doesn’t require sanctuaries to be accredited at all. Rather, it’s about ensuring that sanctuaries adhere to a specific set of standards. These standards would allow legitimate sanctuaries like Big Cat Rescue to remain in operation while eliminating as many roadside zoos and cub handling schemes as possible. Cub handling, where exhibitors charge the public money to take a picture with, swim with, play with, or pet a tiger cub, is a profitable venture for many roadside zoos.
The USDA allows public contact with tiger cubs for a three-month period, from the time the cub is 8-weeks-old until the cub is 12-weeks-old. Cub handling doesn’t raise public safety alarms in the same way as interactions with adult tigers, but animal welfare groups say the seemingly harmless practice is actually extremely harmful to the animals involved. The cubs are often stripped from their mother prematurely—sometimes as young as three days old. They are then kept awake for extremely long hours, fed insufficient formula, and sometimes deprived of food so that they’ll bottle-feed for paying guests. These and lingering safety concerns prompted New York to pass a law prohibiting all public contact with big cats this past August. Still, the demand for cubs is so high nationally that captive tigers are constantly over bred, leading to a flood of adult animals.
Sanctuaries cannot accommodate all of these excess adults and there’s little data on what happens to tigers once they outgrow the cub handling stage. Adult animals that don’t end up in sanctuaries are either kept as pets, sold, warehoused in cages for the rest of their lives, or killed, animal welfare groups suspect. To discourage this cycle of over-breeding, Big Cat Rescue requires owners giving up their pets to sign a contract vowing to never buy another exotic animal again. This ensures that owners won’t simply dump aging cats at the sanctuary, acquire new profitable cubs, and start the cycle all over again.
But Carson Barylak assents that not all owners see their animals as dispensable parts of a business. Scott Wisniewski’s emotional goodbye to Zeus, Kimba, and Keisha is a compelling reminder that many owners have deep-seated feelings for their pets. After years of working with big cat owners, however, Barylak has seen the reality of owning a tiger or lion get the best of them.
“A lot of people go into getting an exotic pet with the best of intentions,” she says. “They just don’t realize that there’s basically no way to keep a tiger in your backyard.”
According to IFAW, there have been 21-recorded human deaths from captive big cats and over 200 more recorded injuries in the US over the past two decades. Most minor injuries fly under the radar and attract relatively little media attention. Other injuries are more graphic—and more high profile.
During a sold-out Las Vegas show in 2003, for example, seven-year-old white tiger Mantecore lunged at Roy Horn of the illusionist duo “Siegfried and Roy.” The hand-reared tiger grabbed Horn by the neck, dragging him off-stage where trainers tried to subdue him. Audience members listened in horror as screams filled the performance hall. The attack left Horn partially paralyzed and led to the permanent closing of Siegfried and Roy’s successful show.
Despite his injuries, Horn famously defended Mantecore, claiming the animal was only acting out of concern for Horn’s well being. And when Mantecore died last year, Horn signed off a heartfelt goodbye letter to the tiger with “Farewell my dear friend.” Horn’s unblinking forgiveness of Mantecore is a powerful testament to the strength of bonds that can form between people and animals.
Walking through Big Cat Rescue, it’s easy to see these bonds at play. Keepers call each animal by name, know their likes and dislikes, and talk to them in baby voices like you might talk to your dog or cat. Susan Bass chuffs—a tiger’s way of purring—at Bengali, her favorite resident. It’s clear to see that she has feelings for these animals, but tempered with the understanding that even captive-raised tigers are not immune to their instincts.
This understanding is at the heart of Big Cat Rescue, where educational videos play on repeat in the lobby and complimentary “I made the call of the wild” buttons are available for guests who e-mail their congressional representative and express support for the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act. Big Cat Rescue and animal welfare organizations exist in this nuanced space: encouraging connections with wildlife while discouraging impulses to own it.
“The cubs are adorable and you can see why someone wants to play with them, but the reality is that we’re just not meant to be in contact with these animals,” Barylak says. “If a person wants a pet tiger to snuggle with, they should just go get a big orange cat from the shelter.”
At 18 and 15-years-old, Zeus and Keisha fit right in at Big Cat Rescue, which Bass describes as an “old persons home for cats.” The aging duo now has access to all of the amenities of their new home, including seasonally themed toys like pumpkins and Christmas trees, and year-round pool access. Dens double as the perfect place for the tigers to nap and retreat from the Florida sun.
At JNK, Zeus and Keisha grew up next to each other in adjacent enclosures. Because of their strict no-breeding policy, Big Cat Rescue also placed the tigers in nearby but separate enclosures. But when Zeus was moved away from Keisha into the sanctuary’s 2.5-acre “vacation” enclosure for a week, staff noticed the tigers seemed to be pining for one another. Out of each other’s sight, Zeus and Keisha called to each other constantly, their loud calls booming across the sanctuary.
Big Cat Rescue staff interpreted the calls as a cry for companionship and made the decision to neuter Zeus and begin a gradual introduction process between the life-long neighbors. Once Zeus recovered from surgery, he and Keisha were moved into an enclosure with a shared wall. The tigers seemed comfortable with the increase in proximity, chuffing and rubbing each other through the chain link fence. Encouraged by their behavior, Big Cat Rescue advanced to the next phase of: putting Zeus and Keisha in the same enclosure. Introducing huge, naturally solitary apex predators into the same space can be a nerve-wracking experience. Even though Zeus and Keisha seemed friendly, staff were acutely aware that anything could happen.
They need not have worried. Once in the same enclosure, Zeus and Keisha greeted each other like long-lost friends, chuffing, licking, and head-butting each other playfully. Now Zeus and Keisha share an enclosure year-round and will be allowed in the sanctuary’s vacation enclosure together as well. This is how keepers imagine the aging tigers will live out the rest of their lives: rubbing against catnip infused toys provided by the sanctuary, splashing in pools, and lounging together in the sun.