Most captive tigers in the United States are “generic,” like this one, with mixed rather than  lineage. Michael W. Dulaney)

Here’s a weird and pretty shocking animal fact: More captive tigers live in the United States — in backyards, basements, traveling zoos and roadside menageries — than in the wild worldwide.

The word “probably” is key, because there’s such a patchwork of laws regulating tiger ownership that no one actually knows how many tigers call America home. But the U.S. government and conservation and animal welfare groups estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 do; as few as 3,200 endangered wild tigers remain.

Now two new federal rules are strengthening government oversight of the domestic tiger population, and animal welfare groups say it’s about time. One does away with a legal loophole that animal welfare organizations have long argued led to rampant breeding and trade of the big cats in the United States, and drove the illegal market for tiger parts around the world. A second new regulation aims to help America’s youngest captive tigers.

All tigers are technically protected under the Endangered Species Act, but the U.S. government has long only monitored and regulated the trade of purebred tigers, such as Bengals and Siberians. Nearly all of the thousands of tigers kept and bred by private owners in the U.S., however, are known as “generic” tigers whose bloodlines are mixed or murky. Because those mutt tigers were viewed as unimportant to wild tiger conservation, their sales and purchases across state lines have not been subject federal oversight.

Regulation is mostly left up to states, some of which ban tiger ownership or require permits. Five states, however, have no rules whatsoever about keeping tiger pets.


(Humane Society of the United States)

But under a new federal rule published Wednesday, interstate trade of all tigers — generic or not — require a permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services or registration under the federal Captive-bred Wildlife Registration program.

What’s more, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the display of live animals, announced this week that roadside zoos, traveling circuses and the like are now prohibited from letting the public handle “neonatal” tigers and other big cats, defined as animals under four weeks of age. The Humane Society of the United States says about 75 such operations allow people to touch primates, bears and big cats and their cubs — some of which, it says, are used for photo ops when just days old, and later dumped when they become big, dangerous adults.

Wildlife and animal welfare organizations called the changes important and overdue steps that will lead to better treatment of tigers here and around the world. One big problem is that no one knows the fate of generic tigers, and that could mean their breeding is fueling illegal trafficking of tigers and their parts, which in China are used to make “tiger bone wine” and rugs.

As a home to a large, unregulated population of tigers, it’s possible that the United States “helped to sustain or even stimulate the market that drives the demand for poaching of wild tigers,” said Leigh Henry, the World Wildlife Fund’s senior policy adviser for wildlife conservation. Generic tigers, she said, “may not be of conservation benefit, but there’s a huge conservation risk here.”


Tigers at the Heilongjiang Siberian Tiger Park in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, China. (Qilai Shen for The Washington Post)

No matter what, the government acknowledges, it’s hypocritical for Obama administration, which has made wildlife crime a priority, to tell China to crack down on the tiger trade when the United States doesn’t fully regulate its own tiger sales.

“This will be a positive driver for tiger conservation,” Fish and Wildlife director Dan Ashe said in a statement.

Fish and Wildlife officials said closing the generic tiger loophole will also make it easier for U.S. law enforcement officers to police their trade. Anna Frostic, the Humane Society’s senior attorney for wildlife and animal research, said it should limit the activities of traveling zoos and animal exhibitors, although Fish and Wildlife says those operations still won’t be required to have permits if they’re not selling or buying tigers across state lines.

In any case, Frostic said, the rule will “help restrict the activities of individuals who have been exploiting tigers with no oversight to date.”

Frostic said the USDA rule on public handling of baby tigers does not go far enough — the Humane Society and other animal rights groups want to prohibit such contact — but it’s a step in the right direction.

“Effectively this addresses the most egregious practices,” Frostic said. “It makes it clear that they are cracking down on this business practice of breeding tigers, immediately pulling them from their moms and subjecting them to public contact.”

Neither change comes close to the sweeping provisions that would be required under the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a bipartisan bill that would prohibit most tiger ownership outside accredited zoos, but that’s never come to a vote. It was proposed after the 2011 debacle in Zanesville, Ohio, where a man released 50 wild animals from his farm, including 18 tigers, and then killed himself. Most of the animals were shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies. (Ohio has since banned the trade and breeding of exotic animals including tigers.)


Terry Thompson killed himself just after releasing a horde of exotic animals, including tigers, in Zanesville, Ohio in 2011. (CBS News)

And even Fish and Wildlife takes pains to emphasize that the rule on interstate tiger trade, which was fervently opposed by breeders, is not going to shut down the industry.

The change, the service says on its website, “is not major in scope and would create only a modest financial or paperwork burden on the affected members of the general public.” It says the rule will discourage generic tiger breeding but stresses that traveling exhibitors will stay in business and that people can still give tigers away across state lines.

The big idea, Fish and Wildlife’s permitting chief, Tim Van Norman, said in an interview, is that “we’re putting all tigers on the same playing field and requiring the same level of protection for every tiger.”

“There are questions about what’s happening to these generic tigers once they pass away: Where are the remains going? Is somebody out there nefariously buying tigers and killing them for their parts?” Van Norman said. There’s no indication that’s happening, he said. “But there’s that question out there.”

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