Cub Petting is Detrimental to Big Cats in Captivity

The Reality of Cub Petting Lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!), these are some of the most popular animals tourists […]

Tanya and Kizmin White Tigers

The Reality of Cub Petting

Lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!), these are some of the most popular animals tourists pay to pet or photograph. Their symbolism of strength, power, wildness, and beauty is mesmerizing. It is hard to believe there is anything cuter, and people want to get as close as possible. “Tiger selfies” are of high demand and one of the most popular exotic tourist attractions in the United States and around the world. What animal loving patrons do not understand is that this industry is not as cute and cuddly as it seems. 

But, there is a dark side to the industry, especially for cubs used for quick interactions that the exploiters do not want to expose. Most patrons are not aware of the underlying problems, abuse, and neglect these animals endure for a lifetime. They believe that they are genuinely helping to conserve the species, expressing their love for tigers and lions through interaction. This trend is causing thousands of big cats and exotic animals to suffer. 

The entertainment industry heavily exploits exotic animal cubs due to the extreme desire to view their cuteness. There are no “behind the scenes” episodes of where the animals come from, or what happens when they grow into powerful apex predators. If the public knew that “liking” these videos, following baby animal posts, or visiting a place to play with cubs was harming them, would they still be so popular? 

Information That Every Big Cat Lover Needs to Know

Overlook of Cub Petting Practices: 

  • Cub petting and pay to play schemes are popular interactive tourist attractions exploiting animals and are incredibly profitable.
  • Fooled into thinking they are helping with conservation or feeding an abandoned cub, animal-loving patrons support cruel practices
  • Breeders steal cubs from their mothers at birth, malnourished, sleep-deprived, and lack proper veterinary care. 
  • They are often starved for them to be hungry for the next picture, and to stay small for the weight limits of public handling. 
  • Babies are only legally allowed held for 2-3 months or up to 30 pounds, after 12 weeks, the USDA considers them to be “too dangerous.”
  • Big cats live 20 years or more in captivity, so babies used for photos are disposed of to make room for more cubs. 
  • Cub petting practices are poorly regulated, and many facilities use illegal methods to exploit cubs despite their age or health, continuing abuse
  • In the wild, mothers will have a litter of cubs every 2-3 years. In captivity, breeders will continuously breed mothers to keep up with this window when in the wild.
  • Breeding generic tigers and other exotic animals in captivity is not helpful for their conservation or save them from going extinct in the wild. 
  • Private breeding causes a surplus of adult dangerous exotic animals who, once grown, are euthanized or sold to roadside zoos and circuses.

Improper Care

Facilities using cubs for the sole purpose of becoming a prop will rip them away from their mother immediately after birth. Newborn cubs are vulnerable and depend on calcium-rich milk from their mothers to develop correctly. In the wild, cubs spend 2-3 years with their mothers, learning vital skills to survive in adulthood. Instead, cub petting facilities take away babies prematurely. This allows the mother to go into heat right away to produce more cubs. For this industry to thrive, there needs to be a constant flow of cubs within an 8-week age bracket. 

Young cubs are easily susceptible to calcium deficiencies. Because of this, they can develop lifelong health defects, such as Metabolic Bone Disease. Metabolic Bone Disease causes brittle bones, development issues, and may become severe enough to take the cub’s life. To ensure the cub will be hungry for the photoshoot, the facilities starve them. Sometimes, they are not fed until someone pays to bottle feed them. Facilities will deprive young babies of sleep, so tourists can repeatedly take their pictures or play with them.  Lack of food, sleep, and proper nutrition leads to a weak immune system, increasing the risk of the transfer of zoonotic diseases.

Handlers spank, yell, scruff, and manipulate babies to get them to behave a certain way. They are disciplined continuously for performing natural behaviors for a young wild cat. If physically hurting the cubs doesn’t stop natural tendencies, they may be declawed or defanged. Are a few minutes playing with a cub and a photo opportunity worth a lifetime of suffering for these animals?

TCWR rescued Blackfire, Rocklyn, and Peyton in 2016 with severe Metabolic Bone Disease, unable to walk. With careful treatment and special diets, the TCWR team nursed them back to health.

Laws and Regulations

As of 2019, there are 41 USDA licensed facilities within the United States, as well as many more international cub petting facilities that allow cub photo opportunities.  Private cub petting facilities treat the animals as props rather than living beings. Money and constant breeding drive the industry to meet the high demand for cub holding at the expense of the animals’ welfare

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), through the USDA, controls regulations for cub petting facilities that have a Class C Exhibitors License. These guidelines are incredibly loose and vague regarding limitations to handling opportunities, providing loopholes for exhibitors. As a result, the regulations for public exotic cub handling are up for interpretation; This is by both the USDA inspectors and wildlife exhibitors. 

The USDA states within the USDA APHIS Animal Care Inspection Guide 2.131 for public contact procedures:

“Newborn and infant non-domestic cats four weeks of age or younger have special handling and husbandry needs… for regulatory purposes, A.C. generally considers big cats to become juveniles when they reach roughly 12 weeks of age. Inspectors should not use this age as an absolute “cutoff date.” Instead, it should be used as a guideline when evaluating exhibits. Specifically, those that allow public contact with big cats that are at or older than 12 weeks of age. At approximately 12 weeks of age, dangerous animals, such as tigers, lions, bears, and wolves, become too big, too fast, and too strong to be used for public contact.”  

But, what happens to the cubs that reach the age of 12 weeks old? At this age, regulations consider them “too dangerous” to interact safely with the public.

Loopholes in Legislation

The USDA requires exhibitors to keep a count of animals. But, the USDA does not require exhibitors to submit this count until directly before the inspector’s visit. Therefore, the actual number of animals in captivity in the U.S. is hard to estimate. The same inspectors that are responsible for inspecting facilities with big cats must also visit individuals, breeders, carnivals, zoos, circuses, research facilities, and educational exhibitors that display animals of any species to the public. Because of the limited number of inspectors, it is easy for exhibitors to continue using cubs before and past the legal age limit or forge paperwork. For example, they may put an incorrect number of animals on a census. More specifically, the omitting of animals killed or sold. 

Facilities can easily use big cats beyond their age restrictions. For the “safety” of the public, sedating the cubs can prevent biting and clawing. Then, stored in small cages when no longer needed. The overpopulation of these big cats results in inhumane treatment, unsuitable living conditions, and abuse at all stages of the animal’s life. In the U.S., there are over 5,000 tigers predicted to be in private ownership, although the exact number of big cats in captivity remains unknown. There are not enough accredited facilities to accommodate the extreme amount of overbreeding for photo and petting opportunities. Stated by the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance’s position paper on private ownership of big cats, 

A small amount of abused and neglected big cats are fortunate to be rescued by an accredited sanctuary as a forever home. Because they are no longer profitable, many are euthanized, sold to roadside zoos, circuses, or hunting ranches.

Lack of Safety 

Because of harsh handling, cubs have a higher susceptibility to germs and zoonotic diseases. They do not have a sufficient immune system until the age of 16 weeks. During this time frame, they are highly susceptible to infection. But, USDA regulations allow the public to interact with them between 4-12 weeks of age. Visit Handling and Husbandry of Neonatal Nondomestic Cats (March 2016) from the USDA APHIS Department for husbandry requirements and standards. Furthermore, in the small cages and carriers, ringworm is quickly developed and can be passed on to patrons.

Finally, no one is training the general public the proper way to feed young cubs. There is a considerable risk of the baby aspirating, developing pneumonia, and dying if not fed properly. Feeding should always be taken seriously and performed by a trained professional. The banning of cub petting would eliminate all safety risks involved for animals and humans alike. 

No Conservation Value 

Breeding endangered species in captivity with the intent to become used for entertainment is NOT helping their conservation; It is removing the focus from the diminishing wild populations and encourages the rampant breeding of inbred animals in captivity.  It also misleads patrons into thinking they are helping with conservation and takes away valuable education and funds from endangered species. 

In the wild, it would be hazardous to go up to a female tiger with cubs. Handling cubs solely benefits the human who is participating in the petting. Conservation is preserving, protecting, and restoring wildlife; Cub petting does the exact opposite. Exploiters use deceitful tactics to make money from hopeful citizens. Resulting in citizens who want to help save the species and be hands-on at the same time.

Improper Breeding Practices

Generic exotic animals also do not help with conservation, as they are captive for the rest of their lives and have no genetic purity. Careless crossbreeding at these facilities results in significant health issues that would devastate wild populations. Once animals have been born in captivity and handled by people, they can never be released into the wild. Humans have habituated these animals. Therefore, animals never learn how to survive on their own.  

Pseudo sanctuaries, breeding facilities, and cub-petting operations often pose as conservation organizations or legitimate sanctuaries. Usually, this is a veil to prevent customers from discovering the real motives behind their schemes. These animals will remain in captivity and cages for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, this does not promote protection, animal welfare, or the conservation of these animals. The trainers inform guests that animals handled, performing, and interacting with humans are enjoying it. THEY DO NOT! But, this is the easiest way for these businesses to trick the public into supporting their company. Choosing to admire big cats from afar and support true sanctuaries and conservation entities will make a difference for animals.

The Solution to Ending Abuse and Neglect of Big Cats and Exotic Animals

The Big Cat Public Safety Act is a federal bill that, if enacted, will prohibit private ownership of exotic big cats throughout the United States and ban cub-petting. Advocating for this law to pass by calling or emailing local congressional bodies is the best way to gain support. To learn more about this law and how to ask your local congressman to support it, please visit TCWR’s, Advocacy PageThere should be no acceptable age limit for cubs to be in contact with humans, and the USDA should ban the cub petting industry and disallow breeding of generic tigers in captivity. Closing the loophole would be a massive breakthrough in ending the cub petting epidemic.

Big cats can live to be 20 years or older in captivity, and true sanctuaries become a forever loving home for each animal. TCWR, and other true sanctuaries, are accredited and verified by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), part of the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance (BCSA), and work together to find permanent homes for animals that need rescue. True sanctuaries will never buy, sell, breed, or trade, and are strictly no contact facilities. 

True sanctuaries are tirelessly working to rescue neglected and abandoned animals, and it is costly to provide them with forever care. Furthermore, true sanctuaries are non-profits, who take on the complete financial responsibility of the animals in their care and depend on public donations to provide forever-homes for rescued animals and to be able to save more in need. 

How You Can Make a Difference:

  • DO NOT participate, support, or have your photo taken with an exotic baby animal.
  • Only visit sanctuaries that are true sanctuaries. Visit the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries’ website to find true sanctuaries in your area or where you choose to travel.
  • DO NOT attend attractions that include big cats or other exotic animals in their shows and performances.
  • DO NOT purchase or consume exotic animal items such as purses, wine, etc.
  • Be their voice and share with others what you have learned to protect more animals in the future. 
  • DO NOT participate in pay to play schemes. Resist the temptation!
  • Speak up against cub petting!
  • DO NOT follow or promote pages that endorse exploitation, breeding, and handling of baby exotic animals.

Most importantly, educate others not to support the abuse and exploitation of exotic animals—advocate for the passing of the Big Cat Public Safety Act by contacting your local congressman and senators. Together, we can make a difference for big cats in captivity! 

*Disclaimer: TCWR Education Staff provides all research and information in regards to the mission of the facility. 

Please Visit Supporting Organizations and Articles: 

ACTION NEEDED: USDA Again Considering Ban on big Cat Cub Handling Carson Barylak, International Fund for Animal Welfare (2016) 

Are Wildlife Sanctuaries Good for Animals? Rachel Hartigan Shea, National Geographic 

Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting: Wildlife in Need 

The Big Cat Handling Crisis, Big Cat Rescue, Born Free USA, Humane Society of the United States, Ian Somerhalder Foundation, International Fund for Animal Welfare, World Wildlife Fund 

The Hidden Cruelty Behind Cute Exotic Cat Cub Petting Attractions, Julie Hana, The Wildcat Sanctuary (2017) 

This Celebrity-Studded Instagram Petting Zoo Is a Disaster Waiting to Happen, Kate Knibbs; Gizmodo (2016) 

The Dark, Deadly Side of Tiger Cub Photo OpsPETA

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