The events in Ohio demonstrate that the United States has an exotic animal regulation problem. Our country has not been able to address the lack of proper control over the keeping of wild animals as pets. To a zoo community that cares about the welfare of animals, those in the wild and those in captivity everywhere, this event was sad on many levels. My heart breaks for the wide variety of precious animals that were killed, but the 18 Bengal tigers lost on this day hit close to home.
First of all, this gorgeous species, and Asia’s most iconic predator, is vanishing in the wild. At the turn of the 20th century, an estimated 100,000 wild tigers inhabited a range extending across Asia. There are only an estimated 3,000–4,000 wild tigers left, and only 7% remains of the tiger’s once vast geographic range.
Threatened by habitat loss, diminished prey, human–wildlife conflict, and the demand for tiger parts, especially bones for traditional Chinese medicine, tigers are now classified as endangered. Considering how few tigers now roam the earth in their natural habitat, it seems unnatural that between 6,000 and 8,000 tigers live as captive pets in the United States.
Regulations around these issues in the United States are divided into federal laws and State laws. The US Fish and Wildlife Agency oversees the import and export of live animals. Most of the exotic animals in the United States under private ownership are not imported, but bred from animals already here. Each state has very different policies regarding what exotic pets residents can own, and the care that must be given them. While the state of California has some of the strictest exotic pet laws, Ohio is one of ten US states that allows people to keep dangerous exotic animals like tigers.
This bifurcation of regulations makes it difficult to track the welfare and safety of privately owned tigers. The government has no way of knowing how many tigers there are in captivity, where they are, who owns them, their quality of life, or what happens to their body parts when they die. Authorities also have no way of knowing if the bones and skins of thousands of tigers in private hands in the United States are entering the wildlife trade and fueling the global demand for tiger parts.
It is my hope that the events in Ohio will awaken these sleepy policies, inspire tighter regulations within states, or even tougher federal laws. Meanwhile, we can act more awake in our own actions by avoiding all entertainment that uses tigers or other wild animals. We can also support organizations, such as the Performing Animal Welfare Society, Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund, and our own zoo, which has acted with compassion to give four tigers a new and forever home.
Please join us on November 17 as we screen the film, The Elephant in the Living Room. Winner of five Best Documentary Awards, the film courageously exposes the shocking reality behind the multi-billion dollar exotic pet industry with stunning photography, inspiring storytelling, and unprecedented access into a world rarely seen. We will also welcome special guest Warden William O’Brien from the California Department of Fish and Game. The event starts at 6:30 p.m. in the Marian Zimmer Auditorium.
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