The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has launched a crackdown on roadside zoos’ lucrative practice of allowing members of the public to play or feed exotic cats such as tigers and lions. This is a result of avid pressure from animal welfare groups to stamp out the use of cubs as entertainment for zoo visitors, who pay often sizable sums to get their picture taken holding, playing with or feeding tigers, lions, leopards and cheetahs.
The USDA has determined that zoos which remove cubs under four weeks old from their mothers and allow them to be manhandled by the paying public are in violation of the Animal Welfare Act. Zoos must ensure cubs are kept with their mothers, sheltered properly and handled with care by staff only.
A coalition of animal welfare groups has pointed to evidence that 75 so-called roadside zoos have practiced this particular violation which interrupts the nutrition cubs receive from their mothers and alters their behavior. The Humane Society said evidence it has gathered from two zoos–Natural Bridge Zoo in Virginia and Tiger Safari in Oklahoma–shows that cubs are regularly punched and smacked to prevent them from playfully scratching or biting people.
One cub was used for 30 photo sessions and five 30-minute private play sessions in one day. With visitors charged $50 for a photo and $300 for a play session, the Humane Society said one cub could bring in $65,000 for a zoo over the course of a single summer.
“We have seen substandard zoos mass breeding tigers for this kind of activity and then immediately severing the maternal bond with their mothers so they are compliant with human contact,” said Anna Frostic, attorney at the Humane Society. “They are regularly deprived of a regular, nutritious feeding schedule. This activity is inherently inhumane.”
The zoos that allow people to grapple with big cats are covered by the Animal Welfare Act but are not members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a peak body that requires members to keep cubs with their mothers. Frostic said the USDA’s move will put these zoos “on notice” that they will be prosecuted if they flout regulations.
“The fate of captive tigers in the US has serious implications for the conservation of tigers in the wild,” said Leigh Henry, senior policy advisor for wildlife conservation at World Wildlife Fund. “Strengthened regulation of US captive tigers will help ensure that captive bred tiger parts don’t enter the black market and stimulate the demand that drives the poaching of wild tigers.”
WCCLAS News Reporter: Cherelle Wells