We’re proud to announce that Big Cat Rescue played a pivotal role in the passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act on December 22, 2022. This monumental federal bill bans private possession of big cats and makes contact with big cats and their cubs illegal in the U.S. While this is a significant milestone in the path towards a more humane world, there’s still much work to be done—especially when it comes to the unethical practice of cub petting. Cub petting might appear harmless, an adorable photo opportunity for many, but the harsh reality is that it perpetuates a cycle of abuse and exploitation. These innocent cubs are torn away from their mothers shortly after birth, subjected to stressful and unnatural living conditions, and often discarded or inhumanely treated once they grow too big for public interaction. It’s a heartbreaking, vicious cycle that must be stopped. Join us in raising awareness and advocating for the end of this cruel practice around the world.
THE TRUTH ABOUT CUB PETTING
You may see advertisements offering you the opportunity to pet tiger or other big cat cubs and have your photo taken with them or even swim with them. You may run across an exhibitor offering this at fairs, malls, or even at the US Capitol.
The cubs of course are adorable and who wouldn’t want to hold one of these cute cubs? You will probably be told things like the proceeds go toward conservation, the cubs were “rejected” by their mother, and the cubs will live at a wonderful sanctuary when too large to pet.
The truth is that by petting the cubs you are unknowingly participating in a business that results in a lifetime of misery for these animals and has a negative impact on conservation of these majestic animals in the wild. The story is multifaceted and unfortunately does not lend itself to a short elevator pitch, but you can learn it here. Below is a brief three point summary, with detail, video and photos on each point below that for those who would like to really understand what happens “behind the scenes” to these innocent exploited cubs.
How the cubs are treated. The cubs are ripped from their mothers at birth, physically punished to diminish their natural behaviors, and deprived of sleep.
What happens to them when too big to pet. The cubs have undeveloped immune systems and there is no record keeping of how many die. If they survive, they typically end up living in tiny, barren cages. The females are often bred unnaturally soon after birth (in the wild they raise the cubs for 2-3 years before conceiving again). This unnatural repetitive breeding is believed to lead to breast cancer.
How cub petting impacts conservation in the wild. Not only is there no conservation value to the breeding and no conservation education associated with cub petting, but it actually negatively impacts conservation in the wild in two ways. First, it sends entirely the wrong message by misleading people into believing that keeping inbred tigers of mixed subspecies is “conservation” so we do not have to worry about them going extinct in the wild. Second, the rampant breeding for petting and lack of tracking of tigers in the U.S. diminishes the credibility of the United States in the international community when we oppose the “tiger farming” in Asian countries that leads to more poaching of the tiger in the wild.
HOW THE CUBS ARE TREATED
Pulled from mothers at birth. The cubs are invariably ripped from their mothers immediately after birth, which is a torment to both mother and cub. Why? Because the exhibitors want the cubs to bond to humans, not to the mother, so they will be more “manageable.” If the cubs are left with the mothers even for a few weeks they become like feral cats, much more inclined to use their claws and teeth and not sit still for petting or photos.
Natural behaviors physically punished. Have you ever watched domestic kittens when they are awake? What do you see? They are in constant motion, using their claws and developing their muscles and skills. Tiger cubs are the same. They do not want to sit still for photos or petting. Employees and volunteers at tiger cub petting exhibitors routinely report that the cubs are physically punished when they do what comes naturally to diminish these natural behaviors and make them more “manageable” for petting.
Below are videos showing examples of how the cubs are treated:
– Cub exploiter whips and punches cubs (20 seconds)
– HSUS undercover video of cubs at two exhibitors (14 seconds) (full video at bottom of page)
And here you see cubs clearly not wanting to be used in this way:
– Cub at mall squirming and screaming (20 seconds)
– Cub exploiters with two week old screaming tiger cubs on display (10 seconds)
Deprived of sleep. Like domestic kittens, tiger cubs need a lot of sleep. Cubs are used for petting for only one purpose – to make money. Invariably, if there is a paying customer, whether the cubs are asleep or not, they are going to be used for petting.
In one video below, you see three week old cubs sound asleep in a crib at a fair. When a customer came over to pay to pet one (this writer undercover) it did not matter to the exhibitor that the cubs were sound asleep – the cub was yanked up from the crib and awakened to make $10.
In the second video, a sleeping cub is held up under its arms and waved around to shown to the crowd. Imagine how exhausted the cub had to be to remain asleep while held and waved like this.
Video – Undercover video of sleeping 3 week old cubs at fair awakened for petting (17 seconds)
Video – Cub at mall held up for crowd so exhausted it looks dead (26 seconds)
Health risk to cubs – no tracking of whether they live or die. Young cubs have very weak immune systems. Normally the mother tiger’s colostrum provides the cubs with immunity from disease. No bottle formula does that. Vaccination typically takes place in a series of shots when they are 8-16 weeks old and is not effective until the third shot. So during the time when the cubs are being handled under 16 weeks they are highly susceptible to disease.
There is no record keeping telling us how many cubs die in the cub petting trade. Under USDA rules, exhibitors are supposed to keep a census of animals and add each one that is born. But, this information is not submitted to USDA and retained or analyzed. It is simply required to be available for inspection at the exhibitor’s location. Given the limited number of inspectors, on average exhibitors are inspected slightly more than once per year. So if the exhibitor simply does not put a cub on the census and the cub dies, or is destroyed when it is no longer useful for petting at a few months of age, USDA is none the wiser.
This writer received a whistleblower report from an employee of one exhibitor saying that the owner had left a mother tiger and four cubs out all night without shelter on a sub zero night and the cubs had frozen to death. USDA had no record of the cubs being born, so there was no penalty.
There are no vaccines approved for use in exotic animals to protect against rabies. Even if rabies vaccines are administered, the effectiveness is unknown, so the law mandates that any time a person is bitten or scratched by an exotic animal, the animal’s head must be cut off and the brain tested for rabies. Even if the person is willing to take the rabies shots themselves, the CDC can require the animal to be killed. No selfie is worth the life of a wild animal.
Traveling shows – Ringworm. The traveling shows that exhibit at fairs, shopping centers and elsewhere offsite are the most abusive. The cubs are typically confined in small cages or carriers for many hours of travel during which they urinate and defecate. The filthy conditions often result in ringworm which you can see in the photo below as a missing patch of fur. The ringworm is horribly irritating to the cubs, highly contagious to people, and very hard to get rid of if you catch it.
WHAT HAPPENS TO THE CUBS AFTER THEY ARE TOO BIG TO PET
There is no tracking of what happens to the cubs after they are too big to pet. If they were not put on a census, USDA does not know they exist. They can be sold for cash, given away, or killed. One of the most notorious cub exhibitors in the country for years bred dozens of cubs each year, but his census of tigers only rose by ten tigers in 5 years. Where did they all go? No one asks and no one knows, since even he does not know where they get passed on to once he disposes of them. One of his tigers came to Big Cat Rescue needing significant medical care after ten years at a horrible roadside zoo he was sent to after he was no longer useful for petting.
Those that do survive typically end up spending their lives in tiny, barren cages at roadside zoos or in back yards. Below are a few examples of “legal” enclosures.
The Animal Welfare Act is supposed to insure that these majestic animals are kept in humane conditions. But, the regulation simply does not and cannot work. For more on that see https://bigcatrescue.org/abuse-issues/issues/why-regulations-dont-work/
CUB PETTING NEGATIVELY IMPACTS CONSERVATION IN THE WILD
Cub petting exhibitors make two totally false claims:
1) Cub petting educates people about conservation.
2) Captive breeding of tigers fosters conservation in the wild.
In fact, cub petting HARMS our efforts to preserve the tiger in the wild in a number of ways, some of which are not obvious without explanation.
First, let’s deal with the two false claims.
Cub petting does not “educate” about conservation. There is no evidence that petting or taking your picture with a tiger cub (or other big cat cub) instills an interest in conserving the animals in the wild or causes people to take action in support of conservation. In fact, multiple studies show that close encounters with captive endangered species actually decreases concern about conserving the animals in the wild.
Think about it. Even if an exhibitor were trying to deliver some kind of educational message about tigers in the wild during cub petting or photo ops, are people listening? No, they are focused on the petting. In contrast, during a guided tour of a sanctuary when you are looking at an adult tiger, people actually do pay attention and learn something.
The idea that one needs to handle the animal to learn about conservation is absurd.
What cub petting does teach people is to want the animals as pets. The news report below is a perfect example. When the reporter asks a little girl at a cub petting exhibit for a comment, she says “I want one.”
“Generic” tigers have no conservation value. Captive breeding can only have conservation value if:
1) The genetic pedigree of the animals is known – in the case of tigers they must be of pure subspecies.
2) The animals are selected for breeding based on conservation science principles to promote genetic diversity and integrity.
The tigers bred for cub petting are of unknown lineages, i.e. of mixed subspecies, commonly known as “generic,” “junk” or “mutt” tigers. They have no value as a gene pool for replacing tigers in the wild if there were ever habitat for them. The only tigers that have conservation value are the few hundred bred under the Species Survival Plan by the large zoos that are accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) that do not do cub petting.
So, the claims that cub petting helps conservation are bunk.
But, it gets worse. Cub petting and rampant untracked breeding not only do not HELP conservation, they HARM conservation efforts, as discussed below.
Exhibitor statements often DIMINISH interest in conservation. Exhibitors often tell people that we have to breed tigers in captivity because they are going extinct in the wild. But, think about that message. What that really tells people is that we don’t have to worry about big cats going extinct because we’re “saving” them in captivity. This diminishes concern about conservation in the wild. Having animals in cages to gawk at or handle is not conservation. Conservation is preserving the animals in the wild so they can play their intended role in the balance of nature. None of these generic tigers bred for cub petting is ever going back into the wild. They are doomed to a life in a cage.
The rampant breeding for cub petting may fuel the international wildlife trade. The rampant breeding of tigers and other big cats in the U.S., the lack of a system for tracking the animals nationwide, and the fact that tigers are often worth more dead than alive, means there is ample opportunity for tigers to end up in the black market trade for tiger body parts.
Finally, and in some ways most importantly,
The rampant breeding for cub petting damages the credibility and influence of the U.S. in working with other nations on tiger conservation efforts. In parts of Asia, and in some Asian communities in other countries including the U.S., tiger parts are used for tiger skin rugs, tiger bone wine, and alleged medicines and aphrodisiacs. An international treaty (CITES) currently forbids slaughtering tigers for their parts.
China seeks to change this to allow farming tigers. They claims that raising and slaughtering tigers to supply the market for their parts will satisfy the demand for parts and reduce poaching of wild tigers. In fact, the opposite is true. The wild tiger will always be viewed as the more potent and therefore more valuable product. It is also cheaper to poach a tiger than to raise one until it is large enough to slaughter. Increasing the supply by tiger farming would expand the overall market, thereby creating an increased demand for the premium wild tiger products and providing more incentive to poach. Nevertheless, China is able to undermine U.S. opposition to tiger farming by correctly pointing out that at least China knows where its tigers are, whereas in the U.S., with our rampant untracked breeding, we have no idea how many tigers find their way into the illegal trade.
Tiger cubs are adorable and the desire to pet or take a photo with one is understandable unless you know the dark underside of this seemingly innocent activity. Contrary to the claims of the exhibitors, cub petting results in misery for the animals both as cubs and later as adults, and actually has a negative impact on conservation. Please do not “pay to play” with tiger cubs and help us educate others not to support this abusive exploitation.
OTHER VIDEOS ABOUT CUB PETTING AND CAPTIVE BIG CATS
Undercover video and detailed explanation of how cubs are punished and used even when sick (7 minutes)
Full HSUS undercover video of two abusive cub petting operations (4 minutes)
Undercover video and detailed explanation of how cubs are punished and used even when sick (7 minutes)
In depth look at plight of tigers in US by Massachusetts School of Law (1 hour)
I included this video because it does give you an idea of how tigers are suffering, not only in Thailand, but in the U.S. Here in the U.S. it is just done behind high security, closed gates, where you will never be able to smuggle in your own camera. I have reached out to the producers of the video to ask for some of their files to use to expose cub petting and hope to get the chance to educate them a bit about why Black Jaguar White Tiger is NOT a place that should be in possession of big cats either.