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Big cats issues


Big cats are wild animals whose complex way of life and biological characteristics place great demands on their habitat. They have specialized diets, behavioral instincts, and species specific needs as mammals. Even when they are born and raised in captivity, big cats are not domesticated and maintain their wild instincts; this causes them to act out in ways that can be undesirable or dangerous to humans. Pound for pound, big cats are 12 times stronger than a man.

Private keeping of big cats

The private ownership of big cats throughout the world remains a huge animal welfare and human safety issue. In the U.S. alone, the estimated number of big cats in private ownership ranges from 5,000 to 10,000. The true number is unknown since there is no comprehensive nationwide regulatory system in place to document how many captive-bred big cats there are. Tigers are likely the most common big cat species kept captive in the U.S., with less than 400 of them belonging to accredited zoos. With most private owners lacking the expertise and finances to properly care for big cats, these incredible animals are left to languish in horrible conditions in backyards, roadside zoos, and traveling exhibits. Others may be sold into the lucrative wild animal trade and killed for their body parts to be used in traditional Asian medicines.


When kept under private ownership, owners rarely possess the necessary expertise and resources to adequately care for these animals. In captivity, some big cat species can reach an age of 25 years, a very long-term and expensive commitment that private owners may not be in a position to make. Big cats require specific nutritional needs, living space, activities to keep them busy, and medical care. When denied this quality of life, it negatively impacts the animal’s welfare and conservation of the species.


Big cats in circuses

In many countries lions, tigers and other big cats are kept as circus attractions, forced to lead miserable existences in tiny cages on trucks or in cramped pens. Circus animals are just like any other member of their species: they need to run, club, and swim. The constant suppression of their natural instincts leads to repetitive stereotypical behaviors, apathy, and aggression. Big cats live under constant stress as they are made to perform unnatural, repetitive acts after being subject to violent training methods – no tiger in the wild would choose to jump through burning rings of fire.


The fact that circuses are typically busiest during the day also presents problems for these species, which are largely active around dusk and dawn. On average, most tigers and lions spend from 75% to 99% of their time in cramped cages that are easily accessible to outsiders. The situation is aggravated by the fact that loners, such as tigers, are crammed together in cramped conditions, sometimes with animals of different species. Small cages offer nowhere to withdraw. During training and performances, direct contact with the same species is also inevitable. Tigers are largely solitary, and this forced and permanent proximity to other tigers causes stress and behavioral issues. Lions also, which in the wild live in prides, are unable to live any kind of natural family life in a circus, nor can they hide away for a while. In addition to it being almost impossible for circuses to keep big cats in appropriate conditions, proper feeding and veterinary care are also problematic and often lacking.


Unsurprisingly, no circus can come close to offering big cats an appropriate environment. A lack of movement and stimulation as well as the suppression of their urge to hunt, lead to behavioral disorders such as repeatedly pacing backwards and forwards. It has been proven that large carnivorous species that need to move around extensive territories tend to show many more signs of stress and disturbed behavior – behaviors that can take up more than 50% of an animal’s time before a performance. In the past two decades, U.S. incidents involving big cats have resulted in over 20 deaths and more than 250 injuries, with the big cats themselves usually being killed afterward.


Big cats in circuses often come from zoos, or are bred in circuses. To allow them to be trained as well as possible, they are separated from their mothers far too early. The young are then raised by hand, forcing them to form an unnatural bond to humans. Like with adult big cats, the training and treatment of cubs often involves intimidation, food deprivation, and physical abuse in order to control them. They are rarely pure-bred; rather, they are often the result of inbreeding, partly in an effort to produce more unusual coloring – such as white tigers. True zoological associations condemn inbreeding as contrary to animal welfare.

Big cats in zoos

Substandard zoos and roadside attractions remain a terrible problem abroad and in the U.S., as big cats and other exotic animals live in inappropriate and unhealthy conditions with little credence to conservation or welfare.  These poorly-run zoos and tourist attractions often lack finances and expertise to appropriately manage the physical and psychological well-being of these complex species. Public handling of big cat cubs – such as tiger cubs in the U.S. and lion cubs in South Africa – perpetuates the cycle of cubs being removed from their mothers at an early age, attributing to health defects and psychological issues later on.


As non-domesticated wild animals, big cats’ (such as lions, tigers, leopards, cougars, jaguars, cheetahs, etc.) ability to adapt to limitations imposed on them by being kept in captivity is correspondingly low. From the point of view of animal protection, species appropriate keeping of wild animals in even the best of zoos is extremely difficult. Problems arise due to inadequate space, poor health and nutrition, and a lack of natural surroundings, social structure, and enrichment. For the affected animals, this can lead to behavioral disturbances (apathy, stress, stereotypical pacing), aggression (towards humans or same species), fear, (freezing or hiding), injuries, and illnesses (bad fur condition, skinny appearance, scars, or arthritis).


Unfortunately, life in captivity for wild animals, like big cats, can never completely live up to the animals’ natural habitat. Therefore, places like AZA-accredited zoos and animal parks must do everything they can to continuously improve the conditions for their animals. They must strive for conditions that meet the highest standards of keeping and ethics, are in accordance with the most up-to-date scientific knowledge, and take into account the animals’ complex social structures, natural behavior, and strict habitat requirements.  


From an animal welfare point of view, keeping big cats in zoological establishments can only be acceptable if the animals are accommodated in such a way as to permanently be free of pain, suffering, harm, and illness. Furthermore, the establishment should facilitate and promote natural instincts and behavior. Zoos that are unable to fulfill these requirements should forego keeping big cats or must improve housing conditions in order to meet the necessary requirements.


Some zoos like the Detroit Zoo believe that zoos should become more likes sanctuaries and have made excellent strides towards supporting and promoting the conservation of big cats in the wild. They have also provided sanctuary for captive wild animals rescued from horrible keeping conditions.


Canned lion hunting

Every year, hunters from Europe and the U.S. travel to South Africa to participate in “trophy hunting”, from which hunters bring home dead animals as trophies to display on their walls as souvenirs. The most extreme and particularly shameful form of trophy hunting is “canned hunting.” With canned hunting, hunters (particularly those with little experience) can pay to kill lions that are bred in captivity and raised by hand, in order to be hunted and killed within a fenced area with no chance of escape.


Before becoming a trophy, the lions are bred and raised on breeding farms. On these farms, cubs are removed from their mothers and used as photo props for tourists or raised by volunteers who mistakenly think they are contributing to the conservation of lions in the wild. By participating and paying for these activities – like cub petting or taking walks with lions – volunteers and tourists unknowingly support the inhumaneness of forced lion breeding and the canned hunting industry. There are an estimated 6,000 to 9,000 lions in over 200 breeding farms across South Africa.


For many years, FOUR PAWS has been working towards ending the canned hunting of African lions in South Africa. More information on this issue and our efforts is available here.