There are fewer than 2,500 Bengal tigers left roaming the wilds of South Asia. So it was particularly tragic when an American named Terry Thompson of Zanesville, Ohio, made the mad decision on Oct. 18 to set loose 18 captive Bengal tigers along with dozens of other exotic animals in his private menagerie before killing himself. Nearly all the animals were eventually put down by police. If the same number of humans had been killed in proportion to their global population, the death toll would have been more than 50 million.
What's even more astounding is how easy it was for Thompson to buy and keep his tigers in the first place. In Ohio one of several U.S. states with no restrictions on the ownership of exotic animals "it's easier to buy a lion or a tiger than it is a pit bull," says Joan Schaffner, an expert in animal law at George Washington University. Indeed, there are few federal regulations on the private ownership of exotic animals, and perhaps as a result, there's a thriving market for the beasts. By some estimates, there are significantly more captive tigers owned privately in the U.S., not counting zoos, than there are left in the wild.
Conservationists worry that privately owned cats can be mistreated and that they pose a threat to humans if they escape. But efforts to push through a national ban are unlikely to succeed. For some Americans, owning a big cat is a personal right. "I was born to do this," says Zuzana Kukol, who keeps a number of exotic cats, including tigers and ocelots, at her sprawling property in Nevada. The tragedy in Ohio won't change that.
A Patchwork Of Regulation
Eight states in the U.S. Alabama, Idaho, Ohio, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin have essentially no laws whatsoever on keeping tigers (and other exotic animals) privately. But 26 other states ban the possession of such creatures in private collections, while 16 require state permits or registration. These uneven regulations mean it's difficult for officials to be sure exactly how many privately owned exotic animals there are in the U.S. and where they are.
Tigers Aren't the Only Wild Pets
Terry Thompson, like many other exotic-animal owners, didn't just keep tigers. Poisonous snakes, adult bears and alligators are also popular animals to keep as pets and they can pose dangers as well. That goes for human-like primates too. In 2009, a 90-kg pet chimpanzee in Connecticut escaped from its owner and so badly mauled a woman that she eventually required a face transplant. "No one can be sure that they can control a dangerous exotic animal," says Tim Harrison, a former Ohio cop who now runs the NGO Outreach for Animals. "That should be common sense but common sense isn't always that common."
Getting a Tiger Is Easier Than You Think And Probably Easier Than It Should Be
Buying the Cat
Websites like the Animal Finder's Guide connect sellers with buyers. Prices vary, but depending on the subspecies, you can pay up to $3,000 for a single animal
If you're not exhibiting your tigers, you don't need a federal permit in the U.S. Some states require registration and have rules; enforcement is uneven
Care and Feeding
If you're not spending a lot of money, you're doing it wrong. Adult tigers need a large cage or enclosure and some 7 kg of meat a day, plus a trained veterinarian willing to see big cats
Too many owners mistreat their animals or give them up when they get too big. And animal escapes happen, sometimes with deadly consequences
Tigers Gone Wild
Escapes and attacks have occurred too often with privately owned big cats:
1. Nov. 19, 2004
St. Augustine, Fla.
A 159-kg Siberian tiger while being walked on a leash in public attacked and injured a 14-year-old boy. The handler was also injured, and the tiger was brought under control only after police officers fired Tasers at the animal
2. Sept. 10, 2005
A 4-month-old tiger was discovered wandering in and out of traffic near a highway exit. Officials later discovered that the cub had escaped from the back of his owner's pickup truck
3. March 29, 2006
A 226-kg Bengal tiger attacked and killed Cindy Gamble at her home. She owned a number of big cats, and officials were forced to euthanize the tiger in order to reach her body
4. May 1, 2008
West Palm Beach, Fla.
A 180-kg white tiger owned by McCarthy's Wildlife Sanctuary bit its owner in the leg during a video shoot for the rapper Rick Ross