National Geographic Investigates Big Cat Trade

In Texas alone, there are more tigers in captivity than exist in the wild throughout the world.

A feature article in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic takes a hard look at the captive big cat problem in the United States. The article, replete with moving photos, examines how thousands of big cats are kept as household “pets” and on display at disreputable roadside zoos in the United States. The piece delves into the immeasurable animal suffering and appalling threats to human safety created by this situation.

AWI contributed to the article, and AWI President Cathy Liss is quoted concerning the US Department of Agriculture’s gutting of Animal Welfare Act enforcement and its paltry efforts to monitor the welfare of big cats in private zoos. Author Sharon Guynup investigated these zoos, in particular those that offer public contact with the animals. “Small attractions that offer visitors a chance to pet tiger cubs for photo ops feed a cycle of abuse in which cubs are discarded when they’re no longer useful,” states Guynup. After they grow too large to be handled, many cubs are funneled into the exotic pet trade, kept in miserable conditions at roadside zoos, or killed.

Guynup uncovered evidence that some tigers who are killed become part of a black market trade in their parts. She says, “Dead tigers have been stuffed or sold off in parts: skins, teeth, claws, and skeletons. ... Tentacles of this U.S. trafficking network have reached into Asia.” 

To alleviate the suffering of big cats who are used and abused in the United States, a federal law prohibiting cub petting and private ownership is a necessary first step. AWI supports the bipartisan Big Cat Public Safety Act (HR 1380/S 2561), which would do just that. For more information about this law and how to take action on it, turn to pages 4–5.

AWI Quarterly Issue

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