If you want to find a lot of tigers, most of us would imagine a journey to India or western Asia. Few would think to plan a trip to Texas. Even so, that may be a better use of your time. As unlikely as it may seem, there may be more tigers living in captivity in Texas than there are roaming wild in the rest of the world.
Given the tiger’s diverse habitats, such as forests, grasslands, savannas, and even swamps, it should not be surprising that they once occupied an area that stretched from the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea to the Pacific Ocean and from Siberia to the Philippines. Today, the territory is substantially smaller. Approximately 3,890 tigers reside in the wild. Their territory is now confined to Southeast Asia, India, some Russian regions, and western China. It has become exclusively an Asian animal, found only in 13 or 14 countries: China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Laos, Malaysia, Cambodia, Burma, Russia, Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal, and perhaps North Korea.
Since adult tigers can weigh 310-660 pounds (140-300 kg) and can eat as much as 88 pounds (40 kg) of meat in a single meal, it stands to reason that they do not make ideal house pets. The fact that they can also be prone to eat their owners without warning is yet one more reason that we on the editorial board of Commonplace Fun Facts are all pretty much dog people. Even so, the number of tigers that are owned by private citizens in the United States is rather staggering.
Tigers are surprisingly cheap to purchase as a pet. Captive-born tigers go for anywhere from $900-$2500. With the cost of a tiger being less than that of many dogs, coupled with the “wow factor” of possessing such an exotic animal, private ownership of the endangered creatures is at an all-time high. Across the United States, an estimated 7,000 tigers live in captivity under private ownership.
With no federal statue regulating the ownership of big cats, such matters are left to the states. The list of states that outright prohibt big cat ownership is comparatively small. Most states permit private ownership of exotic animals with a license. A few states, such as Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, have few or any prohibitions or regulations concerning big cats as pets.
The majority of the United States’ privately-owned tigers appear to be in Texas. The estimates of Texas tigers range between 2,000 and 5,000, compared to the 3,900 that live in the wild in the rest of the world.
Texas adopted the Dangerous Wild Animal Act in 2001, requiring owners of exotic pets to register them. With a permit, ownership of a tiger, leopard, bobcat, jaguar, bear, baboon, chimpanzee, or gorilla is permissible. The permit carries certain obligations. All registered owners of tigers must prove they carry insurance coverage of at least $100,000 against damages from a tiger attack, for example. Even so, there are fewer requirements in place for a person to own a tiger in Texas than there are to possess a dog that has been deemed dangerous. (See Texas Health and Safety Code §822.042 — “Dangerous Dog Law“.)
“Admittedly, these numbers are estimates,” says Pamela Boich with the Texas Human Legislation Network, which lobbies for animal-welfare laws. “But it’s enough to make it a problem,” she adds. One effect of the Dangerous Wild Animal Act is that it is harder to accurately track the actual number of tigers in private hands.
An additional factor that contributes to private ownership of tigers is illegal international trade. The number of tigers and other exotic animals seized at the Texas/Mexico border has been steadily increasing.
The popularity of such television programs as Tiger King has brought a new light on private ownership of big cats. One thing that cannot be overemphasized, however, is the propensity toward animal abuse and neglect. As with all pets, far too many people acquire big cats for the wrong reasons and are ill-equipped to properly care for them.
In the wild, male tigers have territories that range in size from the low end of 5 to 150 km2 (2-60 mi2) for some species to as big as 800 to 1200 km2 (320-480 mi2) for species such as the Siberian tiger. Keeping a creature like that in the confines of an enclosure or, worse, a cage, can be incredibly traumatic to the tiger’s instinctive need for space and solitude.
While some private owners of big cats go to great lengths to provide comfortable and appropriate habitats for their animals, far too many tigers live in squalid and utterly-inappropriate conditions.
“Owners of tigers don’t want their existence known, so neighbors aren’t always aware they are living next to one,” says Ben Callison, a former animal sanctuary director. “We rescued an abandoned tiger living in a small and flimsy chain-link enclosure in Kansas that law enforcement had no idea existed. Just down the road was a children’s daycare.”
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries accredits facilities that maintain the highest standards of care during rescue, rehabilitation, and beyond. Find an accredited sanctuary for tigers and other protected animals here.
The United States Endangered Species Act of 1973 was designed to protect endangered animals, such as tigers, but it applies only to animals taken from the wild. For animals that are raised in captivity or born in captivity, there is no applicable federal statute. The Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 1380) is, as of this writing, pending before the U.S. House of Representatives. It would create federal oversight for possession of big cats, placing minimum requirements for care, habitat, and interaction with the public.