An article in the The Star Press this week focused on the work being performed by the Exotic Feline Rescue Center (EFRC) in Center Point, Indiana. Joe Taft, director of the EFRC, said the facility is one of the largest of its kind and receives big cats from all across the U.S.
“A lot of people see having these animals as some kind of fantasy,” Taft said. “They don’t relate to the realities of the situation whatsoever until it’s far too late.”
The EFRC rescued 21 tigers raised at a facility licensed under the USDA and domiciled alongside a meth lab operation in addition to providing a new home for tigers and lions that were kept for a decade in mud and feces-caked travel cages. They’ve saved leopards, cougars and other in-state big cats that were desperately malnourished, near death from dehydration and trapped in dog-sized kennels without basic veterinary care. A newborn Bengal kitten is just one of the latest arrivals obtained within the state.
“Whatever their original intentions were, most people who decide to own a big cat get put in a completely untenable condition,” Taft said. “They can’t afford to keep the animals, can’t sell them, can’t give them away. For whatever reason some people just don’t care about providing these animals with a good quality of life.”
About 40 percent of the big cats at the EFRC are from Indiana. Taft said the steeper percentage is partially due to the high number of breeders who once operated within the state. The fact that most of the cats placed at the EFRC were legally owned is a regular source of frustration for Taft.
“Under the USDA’s breeder license, a lion or tiger can be kept in a cage no bigger than a sheet of plywood,” Taft said. “There’s no economic incentive for licensees to take good care of their animals.”
Compared to federal regulation, the state has more stringent restrictions on exotic pet ownership but remains one of the least regulated in the Midwest. The only neighboring state with fewer restrictions was Ohio, which changed its policies after a man released 56 exotic animals from his property in an apparent suicide bid in 2011.
An unfortunate turn of events with Senate Bill 109 passing this year, Indiana no longer requires Class III exotic pet owners to notify neighbors of their intent to keep higher-risk exotic animals on their property. According to Linneah Petercheff, operations staff specialist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the process of legally owning a Class III exotic pet begins with a one-time payment of $10 and a two-page form that includes the owner’s recapture strategy if the animal escapes.
Costs for a large enclosure, vet care, and the massive amounts of food needed to maintain the health of these animals required by the DNR are prohibitive enough for most would-be private owners seeking a state permit. If a person wants to breed exotic animals like tigers, lions or other big cats, however, federal law is much more accommodating.
Petercheff said big-cat owners are required to provide a receipt that proves their animal was purchased from a licensed USDA breeder, but the DNR has no jurisdiction over those breeders. Which means a breeder that sells a tiger cub to an Indiana resident, for instance, is under no obligation to notify the DNR the sale was made. Petercheff said relying on buyers to self-report newly acquired exotic animals creates problems for DNR staff trying to track who owns higher-risk pets like big cats.
DJ Schubert, wildlife biologist for the Animal Welfare Institute, said limited regulation on ownership and especially the breeding of exotic animals like tigers and lions not only creates a public safety concern but also further endangers the existence of these animals in the wild.
“When you make them available for sale you create a demand for them,” Schubert said. “People see the little lion kittens and they are awfully cute and it’s that cuteness factor makes people think they can adequately care for them.”
Schubert said breeding in the states, licensed or not, is not a viable means of conserving endangered cats as some private owners claim.
“Breeding captive tigers only creates more captive tigers,” Schubert said. “No program currently exists that can reintroduce captive big cats into the wild.”
“The psychological health of these animals is often lost on people. They tend to understand this need when it comes to their dogs,” Schubert said. “Private owners don’t have the resources to ensure these animals are psychologically enriched and their physical needs are met; existing restrictions fail to prioritize quality of life for captive big cats.”
“We have a significant problem on our hands because we didn’t have the foresight decades ago to restrict the possession and breeding of these animals,” Schubert said. “It’s not the animals’ fault they are in these horrible situations, so it’s our responsibility to fix it.”
Visit the Exotic Feline Rescue Center. “Guests are NOT permitted to touch, pet or interact with EFRC cats!”