Tiger Troubles Quotes by Ron Tilson

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Tiger Troubles – A Cautionary Take of the Wild Animals of The Ozarks 


A loud, low growl cuts through the night and a flash of orange and black is barely visible in the foliage as a big cat paces off its territory. But this isn’t India or Nepal or even a National Geographic special. It could be in your neighbor’s backyard—even in the Ozarks—as ownership of exotic animals becomes more common.


Just ask the people along P Road in rural Morgan County, Missouri. Neighbors became alarmed in September when a tiger owned by a local resident escaped and was spotted on the blacktop. The animal—one of 10 in cages in that particular back yard—was captured and returned to its cage without incident. But the situation raises many questions about exotic animals, where they live, and their future.


Some estimates put the United States tiger population as high as 15,000—up to three times the number of animals still living in the wild in their native Asia. But no one knows exactly how many tigers actually reside in this country because there is little oversight on the ownership of large carnivores.


Dr. Philip Nyhus, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College in Maine, thinks there’s a problem with that.


Counting tiger attacks

Nyhus collects information on the relationship between tigers and humans. His studies indicate there were no fewer than seven fatal tiger attacks in the United States between 1998 and 2001. At least 20 more during that time period required emergency care. Nyhus guesses the number of attacks is actually higher, but because non-fatal attacks may not be reported, they would not be included in his statistics.


“There have been several real tragedies with kids,” he says. In the past five years, at least two children have been killed by pet tigers in the U.S.


The other reason he believes tiger ownership should be more closely regulated is for the health, safety, and welfare of the animals.


“Some of them are very well taken care of, but many are not.”


Owning exotics

The National Alternative Pet Association is a group that advocates the ownership of exotic animals, including big cats. Their mission statement explains their point of view:


“Promote responsible private and commercial ownership of exotic animals of all species… when held in appropriate breeding establishments who have been licensed with the required permits. We especially wish to promote co-operation between the private and commercial sectors involved in the realm of breeding of endangered or threatened species…”


Nyhus says whether this argument is valid or not depends upon your definition of a tiger.


“If you think a tiger is an animal that should sit on someone’s couch or be in a backyard in a cage, then maybe,” he says. “But if you think a tiger is a majestic animal that should be able to roam the wild in its native habitat and be managed as a subspecies, then no. My personal opinion is that private ownership does nothing for conservation. I have yet to hear a good reason why anyone should have a tiger in his backyard,” Nyhus says.


Ron Tilson, director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo and coordinator of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association’s captive breeding program for tigers, is even more vocal on the issue.


The big lie

“For private owners to say, ‘We’re saving tigers,’ is a lie,” Tilson says. “They are not saving tigers; they’re breeding them for profit.”


Tilson says the exotic animal market is a multimillion dollar industry, ranking just below the illegal drug trade and just above the illegal gun market.


“There are a lot of people doing a lot of terrible things to these animals,” he says.


Tilson says it is possible to get on the Internet and find a tiger cub for sale within about 30 minutes. Actually purchasing it might be a bit trickier, because of recent changes in federal law regarding the interstate transport of exotic animals. But for anyone who wants one badly enough, tigers are available.


“For about $400, you can get a tiger cub in no time,” he says.


But why would anyone want to have his own tiger?


Big guns, big trucks, & big tigers

Tilson says tigers are the most charismatic animal on earth. Their appeal is universal. “They are the alpha predator who used to kill and eat us,” he says. “We cannot help but be in awe of their power and grace. Tigers represent everything fine and decent and powerful. Everything those people would like to be. It’s all an ego trip—big guns, big trucks, and big tigers.”


In the Ozarks

Currently, there is no state law in either Missouri or Arkansas regulating the ownership of tigers or other big cats.


But that is something State Rep. Mike Sutherland is hoping to change in 2005. Last year the Warrenton legislator proposed a large carnivore act in the Missouri House after receiving calls from several constituents concerned about big cat owners in his district.


Although the bill is not an outright ban on the ownership of the animals, it does limit their sale and requires current owners to obtain a permit and includes microchip identification of the animals.


“If someone does have these large carnivores, we need to keep track of where they are,” Sutherland says.


Sutherland explains that because the bill was filed late in the 2004 session, it did not have adequate time to make it through the legislative process, although it did receive a positive response in committee. He has pre-filed the bill for the session which begins this month and is optimistic about its passage.


“Government is usually reactive,” Sutherland says. “But in this instance, I think we can prevent a bad situation before it happens.”


Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

When those bad situations happen, what becomes of the animal can be a real problem. The lucky big cats find themselves at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. The 459-acre sanctuary south of Eureka Springs is home to 118 big cats. Since 1992, the Turpentine Foundation has been providing care and shelter for unwanted exotic animals.


“About 90 percent of what we have would’ve been destroyed,” says Tanya Smith, founding member and president of Turpentine. Each month she receives dozens of calls from private owners and law enforcement agencies asking if they can take more animals.


“In the last three months,” Smith says, “I’ve had to turn away about 100 big cats who need homes.” That included the 10 recently deported from Morgan County, Missouri. Reportedly, those tigers were sent to a refuge in Texas.


Although Turpentine Creek has space to expand—at present about 30 of its 459 acres are being used—caring for big cats is a pricey proposition. Operating costs are about $500,000 a year or $1,500 each day. The animals consume about 1,100 pounds of meat daily during the summer and almost twice that each day in the winter months.


“Tyson is good to us”

“We are very fortunate we live in the poultry capital of the world,” Smith says. “Tyson is very good to us.”


Veterinary bills are also a large expense. All the animals are vaccinated annually and have regular checkups. In addition, the big cats are spayed or neutered depending upon the particular needs of the species and the individual animal.


Tilson believes this is the true acid test of whether an organization is really devoted to the animals. “A sanctuary does not breed their animals for profit.”


Smith agrees with this and it is one of the basic principles at Turpentine.


Medical problems are an additional expense. Whether it is genetic defects from excessive inbreeding or malnourishment or abuse issues, many of the big cats need additional veterinary care, including surgeries.


Sleep with the tigers

In an effort to meet expenses, over the years Turpentine has diversified to help make ends meet. One of the recent additions is onsite accommodations they call “Bed and Big Cats.” Guests can stay in an elevated cabin overlooking the big cat habitat area or in suites adjacent to the tiger compound. Smith says the rooms are very popular and usually booked well in advance.


In addition, Turpentine also offers RV sites, hosts weddings, sponsors professional photo sessions, and holds special events to cover expenses. Gate admission and gift shop sales also add to their bottom line.


Donations and volunteers also account for significant contributions. A youth group from Springdale helped build some of Turpentine’s newest habitat areas. These natural enclosures range from one-third to three-quarters of an acre and are home to 44 of the refuge’s feline residents.


“Our goal is to get them all out into habitats,” Smith says. 


For more information about Turpentine Creek and their work, go to www.turpentinecreek.org.


Gayleen Langthorn is a freelance writer in Oklahoma City.

Photos by Steve Smith



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