Oakland Zoo’s Stance on Cub Petting

Amy Gotliffe, VP of Conservation
April 14, 2020

Besides conservation, photography is a deep passion. In 2008, I attended my dream photography workshop, a weekend at the Woodstock Center for Photography. Our assignment: venture into the local New York fair and photograph people with a focus on emotions. We were told to be stealth, uninvolved, a fly on the wall. I wandered past joy on the giant ferris wheel, delight at the magic show, pride from winning a best cow contest, and then: fascination – around an exotic animal photo booth. My emotion: devastation.

As a California girl, I was accustomed to strict laws and compassionate regulations around treatment of exotic animals, and was proudly employed by a zoo that regarded our animals with the utmost care and respect. Working in conservation and animal welfare, I knew this industry existed, but had never witnessed it with my own eyes. I returned to work determined to help make change in any way possible.

I was proud that the Oakland Zoo became a forever home to Torako, a beautiful tiger rescued from a roadside circus, and later the four gorgeous tiger sisters that were once privately owned pets, turning a meek profit as a cheap photo attraction. To see these magnificent cats in their new zoo home, lounging in the expansive jungle setting, playing in the waterfall and enjoying the highest level of veterinary and animal care brought some resolution, but I knew more must be done.

The popularity of Tiger King on Netflix shines a spotlight on these very issues: the exotic pet trade, cub petting, and other wild animal attractions. These outdated practices are dangerous to humans, and cruel and damaging to individual animals. Tigers, lions and other big cats, as well as bears are all popular targets of this trade. Now that the public is paying attention, the animal welfare and conservation issue at the heart of this series must be addressed.

Many of these cubs, born simply to be profitable entertainment,are from the start unhealthy from inbreeding.  As young as a newborn cub, they are handed to strangers for petting and photos. They endure neglect and abuse, are trained through fear and dominance, and live in small and crowded enclosures. When they are too old and big to be easily manipulated, they are sold or even destroyed.

To clarify a message that may be falsely stated in an interview in the series, these captive-bred tigers and other animals are not released in to wild habitats, are not part of a conservation plan, and do not add to the low count of the wild population, which is sadly under 4000 tigers worldwide.

To date, there is still no federal law regulating the private ownership of inherently dangerous wild and exotic animals. Private ownership is just a patchwork of state regulations where owners are not required to report the number of animals they own. There are still five states with no laws and regulations around ownership of tigers and other exotic pets. USDA only regulates public facilities (zoos, sanctuaries, circuses, and the like) through the Animal Welfare Act. Dogs, cats, and other domestic or farm animals receive much more regulation than tigers, lions, bears, primates, and other exotic animals in private ownership.

The mission of the Conservation Society of California/Oakland Zoo is based on respect for wildlife and the natural world. We and our welfare partners are working every day to close the loopholes in legislation that allow tigers, lions, bears, and other exotic animals to suffer in private and commercial ownership and the public safety issues surrounding them.

We also believe that change is possible, and that the power lies within the action and choices of each one of us. Here is how you can take action for lions, tigers, bears and other animals we love and respect:

Make Humane Choices:

- Entertain Wisely: Choose movies, TV shows, circuses and other live entertainment that do not include live exotic animal “actors”

- Be a Kind Tourist: Do not pay to hold, pet, ride, feed, or swim with an exotic animal

- Take Smart Selfies: Do not get your photo taken with an exotic animal

- Say No to Cruelty: Do not visit road side zoos, county fairs,and other attractions that involve this practice

- Make Informed Pet Choices: Do not choose an illegal exotic animal as a pet – visit your local shelter for your next furry family member

Tip: Tripadvisor AND Airbnb are committed to animal welfare, and Oakland Zoo’s Eco-Trips are the gold standard in Wildlife Friendly Travel.

Support Real Sanctuaries:

True Sanctuaries DO:

- Rescue and rehabilitate animals that were once pets or entertainment, or victims of the illegal wildlife trade in any way.

- Give them a Forever Home with proper love, care and medical treatment for life.

- Provide positive reinforcement, stimulating and natural enrichment, and large spaces, shelters and appropriate companionship

True Sanctuaries DO NOT:

- Breed, sell or trade animals  

- Force animals to perform

- Allow hands-on contact

Tip: The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) and Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance are two really good sources to find out which are true sanctuaries.

PAWS is an incredibly reputable and humane sanctuary in California.

Support organizations that are addressing this issue:

Our Conservation Partner, ARCAS in Guatemala receives hundreds of Central American animals that were destined for the illegal wildlife trade. They then rehabilitate each animal with proper diet and medical care, then release them back into the wild.

Take Political Action:

What has driven the proliferation of big cats in captivity in the US is the cub breeding and dumping for the hands-on, cub petting, photo-op, tourist industry.If tourists no longer patronize these places and if federal legislation then prohibits these activities, then the mass breeding will stop.

The Big Cat Public Safety Act has been introduced into both houses of Congress. The Act would create an overarching federal law on big cat ownership that would prohibit hands-on contact with tigers and prohibit breeding that did not fall into Species Survival Plan (SSP) conservation breeding programs of the five tiger subspecies.

Let’s ensure our emotion of fascination by the incredible tiger results in a humane, respectful and safe world for this noble cat, and all species.