Who can guess what the #1 cause of big cat suffering is? If you guessed cub handling and pay-to-play schemes, you were absolutely right. Pay-to-play schemes are where people pay usually anywhere between $10 and $25 to pet, have photos taken with, or even swim with a baby big cat, usually a tiger or lion. These pay-to-play schemes are everywhere: in parking lots, at fairs, malls, and flea markets, to name a few.
People don’t often think about this, but where do the cubs go when they’re too old to safely handle? The USDA guidelines state that a cub can only be used in these schemes between the ages of 8-12 weeks. Before 8 weeks, the cubs haven’t had their immunizations and haven’t had time to build an immune system, so they could easily get sick. After 12 weeks, they are deemed too dangerous to handle.
These USDA guidelines are difficult to enforce. Oftentimes, the owners of these pay-to-play schemes lie about the cubs’ age so that they can continue displaying the cubs after the 12-week cutoff. They do this by withholding food so the cub will not grow as fast, and by the use of drugs. This treatment of the cubs, coupled with the stress endured, often causes diarrhea and other health problems.
What stress? You may be wondering. For starters, the cub is taken from mom shortly after birth which traumatizes both the mother and the baby. This ensures that the mother will stop lactating and be ready to breed again. In the wild, tigers will have one litter of cubs every 2 or 3 years. In captivity, these tigers are forced to breed 2-3 times in one year in order to supply more babies for these pay-to-play schemes. Meanwhile, these mothers often die an early death from mammary cancer due to the intensive breeding.
The stress these cubs endure is palpable. They are handled by countless people during the course of a day, subjected to flashes from the cameras bombarding their eyes, and are forced to stay awake when they should be sleeping most of the day in order to grow. In addition, they will often be drugged so they will be more cooperative. If they are not cooperative, they will pay by being dangled and bounced up and down, or having the handlers blow in their faces, or worse.
So, what does happen to these older cubs too big to be used as photo props? No one knows for sure. In the U.S., there are an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 tigers kept by private owners. In contrast, only about 3,200 tigers remain in the wild. Many of these tigers are kept in tiny, increasingly cramped cages in deplorable conditions, barely enough space to turn around, dirty water to drink, perhaps scraps of chicken to eat because it is cheaper than red meat. These cats need a diet of red meat and zoological mush which is rich in vitamins and minerals essential to keep them healthy, supplemented with other kinds of meat.
As if this weren’t bad enough, this trade in big cats also provides a cover for the illegal trade in tiger bones, skin, teeth, hides, and for their meat. This also creates a greater demand for the “real” or wild tiger or lion which leads to increased poaching. Many other older cubs and adults are sent to canned hunting ranches where, for a price, a “hunter” can go into an enclosed area where the lion or tiger has nowhere to escape. The “hunter” returns home with his trophy and the lion or tiger, who is accustomed to humans, is easily shot dead.
So, this trade in baby big cats is the number one cause of suffering and is also the reason why there are more big cats in backyards and basements across the country than there are in the wild. There aren’t too many people who would say they don’t want to pet a baby tiger or lion. After all, they are adorable and you get to brag about it to your friends and show them the picture to prove it. But before you do, think about all the suffering you are causing by doing this. Please don’t buy into the pay-to-play schemes or support them in any way. Baby cats belong with their mothers, free and in the wild.