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End Animal Trafficking and Exploitation

Tiger King shines a light on cruel, mistreatment of animals

By John Linehan, Zoo New England President and CEO

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness has captivated audiences with lurid intrigue and mystery. While viewers have been drawn in by the spectacle and speculations that the show generates, one thing undoubtedly made clear is that the cruel, abusive trade and mistreatment of wild animals in the United States needs to end now.

Private ownership of big cats, primates, and other “exotic” animals for commercial exploitation is a serious animal welfare problem, posing a real danger to both people and animals.

Here in Boston, Franklin Park Zoo provided a home for two tigers rescued from just this sort of illegal wildlife trafficking. In 2006, Luther and Anala were young tiger cubs when they were confiscated in a federal law enforcement sting. The agents, posing as private sector buyers, were able to purchase the pair from the “wildlife sanctuary” where they were born. Franklin Park Zoo was happy to provide a home for these tigers and, through their story, educate the public about the devastating effects of illegal wildlife trafficking.

With fewer than 4,000 tigers remaining in the wild, these animals face increasing threats from poaching, illegal wildlife trade, habitat loss and fragmentation. They deserve respect and protection, not abuse and exploitation.

Big cats, especially species like tigers, are endlessly exploited for profit with damaging consequences. One disturbing scene from the docu-drama showed a young cub being pulled from its mother while she was giving birth to a second cub. The first cub, minutes old, was dragged from the whelping box by a pole, across the ground of the cage and squeezed under the fencing – all to be used in paid photo opportunities. When they outgrow their value as photo props, they face a future of abusive mistreatment and sometimes death when they become too dangerous or expensive to feed.

Equally appalling was the show’s depiction of inbreeding and cross-breeding of big cats. The oversimplification of breeding “endangered species” as conveyed in this docu-drama is both misleading and counter to breeding principles established by conservation biologists to save species. Breeding animals without regard for the genes they carry reduces genetic diversity and species’ health. At zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), species like tigers are carefully paired and bred based on their genetics and family history to ensure healthy populations. Careful record-keeping and research-based breeding principles guide these recommendations. The breeding programs at AZA-accredited institutions, like Zoo New England’s Franklin Park Zoo and Stone Zoo, help to ensure the continued survival of species, most of which are threatened or endangered, and enhance their conservation in the wild.

When tigers are bred for profit, as shown in Tiger King, sometimes the animals are purposefully inbred to achieve different looks, such as white tigers, or bred to produce species hybrids. Breeding between lions and tigers is unnatural and does not occur in nature. Inbred and crossbred animal can suffer debilitating health issues which require lifetime care. An underlying disrespect for nature and greed drives these irresponsible management decisions.

Unfortunately, Massachusetts has unknowingly played a part in this type of exploitation. For more than 30 years, one facility owner in this docu-drama brought lions, tigers, a crossbred liger, baby chimps and pumas to the South Shore for a month-long stay at a renaissance fair. There, these animals would remain in small cages until they were brought on stage, often chained, to entertain audiences. Such exploitation of these endangered animals must be brought to an end.

In Massachusetts, legislation (House 2934) has been filed that would help end the egregious abuse by prohibiting traveling animal acts that use animals such as elephants, big cats, and primates in our state. There is also federal legislation pending that would ban the possession of lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars, or any hybrid of these species by individuals not licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture. This legislation, known as the Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 1380) focuses on privately owned animals.

These animals are deserving of our respect, our empathy, and our protection. We urge you to call your legislators to support these bills ending these terrible practices.