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Hot or Not? Big Cat Sanctuary Edition

(Photo Credit: bigcatawareness)

There are far too many “cute” big cat videos and vines and gifs trolling around here for us to reblog and critique every single one - and in most of them, it’s also important to have context about the facility it comes from and their policies for working with their animals. And as always, informed consumerism should always play a big part in what and how you decide to share animal media. 

To help everyone out we’re creating a masterpost of the pertinent issues to be aware of with big cat sanctuaries and rescues, and some information on how the most well-known facilities stack up. Most of it is sourced from bigcatawareness​, who has professional experience working around large cats at a responsible facility. If you want more information on any facility or topic, clickthrough links in the next will lead to her tags. 

Big Cat Issues:

  • White Tigers
    • All white tigers can be traced back to a single stud male named Mohan, who was caught as a cub in India in the 1950′s. (It’s notable he was caught as a cub. Leucistic animals rarely survive to adulthood because their coloring makes them so vulnerable). 
    • ALL white tigers are severely inbred. When Mohan’s cubs all turned out normal orange, he was bred with one of his daughters in order to get the double recessive gene that turns fur white and eyes blue. 
    • There are no other verified strains of white tiger genetic material in captive populations, only unquantifiable rumors. 
    • A white tiger being born naturally has a 1-in-10,000 chance of happening, so the chance that it will happen again without any inbreeding is basically nil.
    • Most mothers will smother white/abnormally pigmented cubs if given the chance, both in the wild and in captivity. This is because they’re so vulnerable that they’re not worth the energy investment to nurse and raise because they’re almost guaranteed to die.
    • The inbreeding that has kept multiple generations white basically has crippled all white tigers. They suffer from bone deformation, cleft palates, scoliosis, issues with mental retardation (no, they do not have Downs syndrome), crossed eyes, and many other problems. This affects all white tigers. There is no such thing as a healthy white tiger. Period. 
    • AZA accredited zoos are banned from breeding white tigers because it is considered cruel. If there is one in the collection is is only and always a rescue. 
  • Ligers, Lililigers and Other Hybrids
    • Ligers originally occurred when zoos in the early 1900′s didn’t care about separating lions and tigers in their exotic cat exhibits. 
    • Ligers are not natural. The cats live on different continents and would not ever interact. (But they can breed, you say. All cats, large and domestic, can produce fertile embryos. Yes, you can implant clouded leopard sperm in a domestic cat egg. It will not live to term or survive birth, but it’s fertile and horribly unethical so it’s just. not. done.)
    • Females suffer major problems during birth and often must undergo a C-section due to the size of liger cubs. There are a number of documented incidents where the mother died during the delivery. Cubs usually die young from birth defects. 
    • Ligers are incredibly unhealthy. They lack both copies of the growth inhibitor genes that big cat cubs inherent - one from each parent. It’s carried in females for lions and males for tigers, so in liger pairings, the embryo gets none. This means they’re literally too big for their bodies. They often suffer genetic abnormalities (and are sometimes born with incomplete DNA), neurological problems, metabolic bone disease, and arthritis among other health complications. 
    • These animals do not need to be ‘conserved’ because they do not exist in the wild. Their breeding in banned in reputable institutions because it is considered cruel.
  • Cub Petting and Pay to Play
    • Breeders who bring cubs to public venues and charge money for photos with cubs or touching them frequently lie to customers; that they’re “rescues” and operate “sanctuaries”; that the cubs have a good quality of life on the road; that they “enjoy” being handled by dozens of people a day; that various random things “calm” or “reset” the cubs; that it’s safe for the cubs or even legal to handle them as young as weeks old; that breeding cubs for people to handle provides the sole monetary support for the care of the adults; that the cubs will have good homes when they grow up.
    • True rescues and sanctuaries do. not. breed. Period. No real responsible organization will have cubs except on accident.
    • The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries sets the world standard for animal care and practices, and facilities that breed and take animals around on exhibit are immediately disqualified from belonging to the organization. 
    • Cubs used for petting are torn from their mothers shortly after birth, disrupting natural bonding and imprinting behaviors that effect them the rest of their lives as well as causing the mother severe distress.
    • Cubs used for petting do not get to do anything natural to tiger cubs because they are locked in a tiny, loud cage and repeatedly awakened. They cannot roam, play, explore, learn from their mother, or sleep for prolonged period of times (something all babies need). 
    • Exhibitors restrain cubs when they’re unwilling to interact with people, using punishment such as blowing in their faces, dangling the babies by their limbs and tossing them in the air. They lie and say this calms them, but the animal instead stops struggling hoping the punishment will end. 
    • Severely sick cubs are still kept on display, even with diarrhea and obvious sores. 
    • Cubs are often available for interaction much younger and much older than is legal. USDA regulations only allow cubs to interact with the public between 8-12 weeks, book-ended by their first set of injections and when they get big enough to become dangerous. Many exhibitors freely admit cubs are well under 8 weeks old, or as old as 5-7 months. 
    • There is no reason to breed and exploit cubs to support other animals. If a facility doesn’t have the funds to care for the animals they have, they shouldn’t have them - much less create more
    • Paying to pet tigers does jack shit to support conservation in the wild. The money does not go back to any conservation fund - it goes straight into the pockets of the exhibitors. In fact, untracked tigers (not part of the species protection program run through AZA, as most exhibition tigers are) are thought to contribute heavily to the black market trade for tiger parts. 
    • Petting cubs gives people the impression that tigers make cuddly pets, which leads to more abusive situations and human and animal injuries and deaths. 
  • Declawing:
    • Declawing does not just remove the claw - it removes an entire segment of toe. Declawing a cat is like cutting off your finger at the last knuckle. 
    • Declawing leaves cats in pain forever. Chronic and lingering pain are well known side-effects of declawing in both domestic and big cats. They will often have an aversion to touching things with their feet and will frequently shake them like they’re in pain.
    • Because cats walk digitigrade (on their toes), declawing forever forces the cat to walk on the sites of amputations. In some cats the tendons are so badly damaged they can’t walk on their paws anymore and walk on their “wrists” and heels.

Okay, on to the sanctuaries (or psuedo-sanctuaries). 

Big Cat Facilities:

Big Cat Rescue - Grade: A plus

(photo credit: BCR facebook page)

    • 100% open about history starting off as a shady “rescue” and their journey to being the place they are today. They openly acknowledge they used to keep cats as exotic pets, and breed and buy animals, but stopped in the late 90′s. Currently only 20 or so of their animals (out of 85+) were bought or bred, most of which were bobcats bought from fur farms in 90′s in order to save them from being killed for their pelt.
    • No direct contact with cats, period, unless medically necessary. Period. Staff do not ever go into enclosures, even to clean (most zoos shift cats into back areas for this). Instead staff work through fences with long tools. 
    • All animals are spayed and neutered, no intentional breeding.
    • Cats that lived together well previously are kept together whenever possible.
    • Directly involved in pushing legislation to reduce animal cruelty as well as encouraging airlines to stop transporting hunting trophies, end the private possession of big cats, fighting big cat circus exemptions and hunting bills, and banning cub petting schemes. 
    • Shares videos/vines showcasing wild behavior on the part of the cats, including aggression and predatory behavior.

Care Rescue Texas (Big Cat Derek) - Grade: A minus

(photo credit: Care Rescue Texas, Mwali’s page)

    • Good quality husbandry
    • Staff never go into the enclosures with the animals
    • Social media stresses that the cats are wild and dangerous, although some recent videos tend more towards the ‘cute’ factor of cub interaction without quite enough context. 
    • Two lions were recently bred, which is iffy for a good sanctuary.
    • Cubs are hand-raised when necessary, and even though recently it seemed like they pulled contact later than most facilities consider appropriate, it was explained that it was done in the cubs’ best interest because they had motor problems and needed extra staff help. 
    • Does not participate in petting schemes.

Black Jaguar White Tiger - Grade: C minus

(Photo credit: bigcatawareness)

    • Allows celebrities/guests to take photos free-contact with adult cats and cubs
    • Declaws adult cats upon obtaining them
    • Staff frequently interact with animals free-contact and pet the cubs far past what is reasonable for hand-raising
    • Purposefully breeds cats at the facility. 

T.I.G.E.R.S. - Grade: D minus

(Photo credit: The Daily Mail)

    • Breeds white tigers, white lions, ligers, white ligers and more unhealthy cats (the white liger cubs were never mentioned again after their birth announcement, which makes it likely none of them survived).
    • Bills ligers as a novelty with no mention of their health problems.
    • Allows pay to play.
    • Many of the cubs in pay to play schemes are too young and appear sick.
    • Keeps cubs on a nutritionally deficient diet to keep them small and cuddly longer, leading to severely underdeveloped bones and muscles.
    • Purposefully sets up mixed species interactions (orangutan and tiger cubs) specifically for advertisement and profit.
    • Represents themselves as a sanctuary and dedicated to conservation while purposefully breeding excess and inbred cubs.
    • Lies about the genetic status of white tigers and other color morphs, calling them ‘endangered subspecies’ rather than ‘inbred’. 
    • Have absolutely stupid requirements for apprentices, such as restricting medication/processed sugar/palm oil, requiring a vegetarian diet, forbidding romantic or familial relationships during the apprenticeship, and forcing applicants to watch movie like Kill Bill and the Devil Wears Prada and be able to discuss them in depth at a moment’s notice. No, really. 

Tiger Temple - Grade: F

(Photo Credit: Reuters)

    • Downplays the ‘wild’ nature of tigers after a staff member is mauled.
    • Cats are fed a totally inappropriate diet, such as noodles, milk, and boiled chicken for both adults and cubs. 
    • Cats are chained in one spot all day, often without easy access to shade, food, or water. 
    • Allows guests free contact with adult cats. 
    • Terminally sick or suffering cats are not euthanized due to religious beliefs.
    • Have far too few adult cats for the number of cubs bred each year - cubs disappear under suspicious and unexplained circumstances. 

Tiger Kingdom - Grade: F

(Photo credit: Unknown. Submitted to bigcatawareness by mr-repulsive)

    • Breeds white tigers.
    • Feeds cats a poor diet.
    • Allegedly drugs adult animals.
    • Allows guests free contact with adult cats and reopened the petting section even after an Australian tourist was mauled.
    • Guests are allowed to lay on/ cuddle with/ pull the tails of the adult tigers.
    • Animal live in tiny cages when not being harassed by visitors.