Tiger tragedy turns spotlight on ethics of keeping big cats
If there was anyone who knew anything about big cats, it would have been Cynthia Lee Gamble, a woman who kept a menagerie of tigers, cougars and other wild felines on her 80-acre Pine County property. Yet that knowledge failed to protect her from an obvious fact of nature — that wild animals are wild — illustrated all too tragically last week when she was found dead, mauled by one of her tigers.
Gamble, who was 52, was not a novice at caring for and living with exotic, and dangerous, species. Her interest began as a nature photographer and eventually grew into her Center for Endangered Species, which she founded in Hugo, Minn., with a former partner before moving it to Pine County, near Sandstone.
Her work was well-publicized, the Pine County Courier reported in 2002, noting television appearances by 40 of the center’s cats, including on NBC’s "Today" show and in a Hollywood movie. Indeed, Gamble was hardly shy about marketing her ferocious cats, with the now-defunct CEC Web site saying, "Our feline ambassadors are trained to pose for the camera. They have appeared in books, calendars, on posters & postcards, as well as enhanced many magazine articles."
Yet the Web page also included more troubling passages, such as "Our cats also specialize in stunt action and mock attacks, as well as snarling, leaping, jumping, running, and climbing. If you are looking for specific behaviors, call in advance so the trainers at The Center can prep each individual cat."
Prep them? To snarl and make mock attacks? How exactly does that further the survival and well-being of endangered species?
With Gamble’s death coming after a rash of Minnesota big cat attacks — none before fatal — in recent years, other exotic species owners and sanctuaries wasted no time offering their spin on the tragedy.
"You have a better chance of winning the lottery jackpot (1 in 175,711,536), than being killed by a captive large cat (1 in 297,618,284)," Zuzana Kukol, a Las Vegas exotic animal owner and trainer, wrote in an e-mail to the News Tribune. By phone, she elaborated, saying media hysteria following big cat attacks unfairly taints owners as irresponsible.
"I didn’t know her," she said of Gamble, adding, "I would say she knew what she was doing. She was inspected by the USDA."
But another message, from Carol Baskin of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla., took the opposite approach.
"This facility was USDA inspected and illustrates why a USDA permit does not insure safety nor decent conditions for the animals," she e-mailed, continuing: "A volunteer at the Center for Endangered Cats reported to the Wildcat Sanctuary in MN that cats were found dead due to starvation and dehydration."
Baskin too confirmed by phone she did not know Gamble, but said no one has any reason to own big cats.
"I don’t believe these animals belong in private possession. We’re doing everything we can to change the law," she said, adding her facility takes in abused and rejected big cats — about five a year — to spend the remainder of their days.
There are any number of self-proclaimed animal sanctuaries professing to operate in the best interest of their exotic charges. While Baskin sounds convincing — and so too, perhaps, did Gamble to many people — it is difficult to know which facility is true to that mission versus those that are little more than fronts for roadside carnivals.
Wherever Gamble’s center stood on that scale, statements on the Web site clearly weren’t written from the point of view of animals trying to live out their lives naturally in an unnatural environment. Tigers aren’t native to Minnesota, no matter how convincing the center’s claim ("The Center is in wild and scenic Minnesota, halfway between Minneapolis and Duluth. We have beautiful rivers, waterfalls, ponds, woods, and rocky cliffs and outcroppings. … We can match every cat to its natural habitat.")
Perhaps Gamble loved her animals and died, albeit in a manner few would wish to endure, doing what she wanted to do. It’s doubtful, though, the same can be said of her cats.
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457
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