“Of course I want to pet them,” our guide was telling us. “How could I not? But I won’t. Because my curiosity isn’t worth their life.”
Melissa, our guide during the visit to the Carolina Tiger Rescue, was referring to the fact that if a big cat scratches a human, regardless of who’s to blame or how much damage is caused, the cat must be killed. In the past couple of years, around 30 people were attacked by tigers – which sounds horrible, and excessive, and it is. Part of this is due to roadside zoos, which can allow humans to interact with the big cats in a way that isn’t safe for either party. Part of this is due to the common and wholly understandable desire to have a baby tiger as a pet, without the realization that baby tigers grow up to become adult tigers, which are totally unsuitable for pets. But whatever the cause, the prolonged interaction between humans and tigers can be deadly – for both.
Even if the person acknowledges their own wrongdoing in sticking their finger through the cage when it’s clearly prohibited, the animal will die. As a result, while 30 people were attacked, 200 tigers were killed because of their interactions with humans.
Carolina Tiger Rescue, a not-for-profit organization with an annual budget of 1.2 million dollars, most if not all from private donations, has the mission to rescue and protect wild cats from being victims of human curiosity, greed and lack of education. The organization is home for 50 wild cats of different sizes, from 20 to 600 pounds. Almost each of them has a sad story behind: from abandonment in the parking lot, to retirement from a Vegas stage, to being found roaming around a North Carolina interstate.
On our trip to the Carolina Tiger Rescue, we were able to get a glimpse into the lives of these magnificent creatures, and the struggles that surround their complex interactions with humans. We saw a male lion consume an entire chicken in less than a minute, and heard the sickening crunch as a tiger’s jaw splintered bone. While witnessing a tiger lunch, it is hard to believe that the most common misperception that the NC Tiger Rescue has to fight is that tigers are not pets.
There’s a thriving trade in tiger cubs – approximately 10,000 tigers reside in the US as exotic pets or animals in roadside zoos or pay-to-plays, which is around twice as many as exist in the wild. People adopt them as kittens when they don’t look so dangerous. There are very few laws in place to regulate breeding or keeping these animals, and those that exist are generally passed in the wake of tragedies; there’s very little proactive work done to protect big cats from being bred, sold, and exploited.
And this speaks to the difficulty of balancing the protection of these cats with their public perceptions. If they’re thought of as too dangerous, they’re usually killed. If they’re thought of as playful and cuddly, they’re sold as cubs or kept as exotic pets, which is dangerous for everyone involved. If they’re thought of as exotic, they can keep public interest, and possibly gain funding for conservation and protection, but even this isn’t without negative side effects.
Melissa, our guide, had worked with the tigers for years. She could recognize each individual animal by its call, and had even trained some of them to participate in their own medical care so that they didn’t have to be tranquilized every time a procedure needed to be done. But she wouldn’t think of going anywhere near them, because they’ll likely hurt her in some way, because they’re big cats, and that’s what they do. She loves them, respects them, and is suitably wary of them.
The white tiger, we learned, is an excellent case study. It’s hard to see a white tiger without being awed by its majesty, its grace, and the apparent wisdom in its leonine eyes – and having seen one, I can attest to that. However, the particular specimen we saw, Saber, was immensely cross-eyed, the result of generations of inbreeding. As we learned, there’s no such species as a white tiger – the coat coloration is the result of a rare genetic mutation. And only one such tiger has ever been captured, meaning that all white tigers we now see are results of large-scale inbreeding, breeding that one tiger with his daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters to achieve the right fur color. For every white tiger that is bred, there are more than 10 that will be imperfect. Maybe their coats won’t be white enough. Maybe they’ll be cross-eyed, like Saber, or otherwise deformed. So where do these tigers go? Sometimes they’re lucky enough to end up in tiger sanctuaries like Carolina Tiger Rescue, but that’s a best case scenario that’s not often realized.
So this brings up a bit of an ethical dilemma. White tigers are great at catching public attention, and people are willing to go to great lengths to protect their ‘species’. These animals bring in a lot of money for conservation, but it comes at a cost. In order to propagate the interest in white tigers, we need to actually have white tigers, which means breeding a great number of tigers with poor genetic health in the hopes of producing a white one, which means money goes to shady breeders, and ‘imperfect’ tigers are brought into a world that’s not equipped for them. Furthermore, it might take money away from protecting all of the other tigers, the ones not the result of forced inbreeding, because they’re not nearly so eye-catching. So do we educate the public about the myth of the white tiger, knowing that society might lose interest in conservation without the exotic thrill of the black-and-white creatures? Do we perpetuate the myth in order to keep our funding? Do we find a way to balance the two?
Advocates like Melissa are trying to demonstrate that each tiger, regardless of the color of its coat, is an incredible animal. They’re trying to educate the public to respect these wild cats for what they are – graceful, deadly, ruthless predators; adorable, close-knit families; goofballs and drama queens and jaws that could crush a vulture with a single bite.
With such a large population of big cats in America, it’s easy to say we’ve got a tiger by the tail. Finding a way to balance the safety and security of both us and them is a real challenge – big cats are extremely successful predators, but when interacting with humans, they’re out of their depths. They’re misunderstood and placed into situations that put them and those around them at risk. They need people like Melissa and the other volunteers at Carolina Tiger Rescue to speak for them and help them navigate the murky morays of living amongst humans.
It’s impossible to see these incredible cats, hear their tragic pasts, and not feel awed by their majesty. However, it’s important to make sure that we can interact with them in a way that’s safe, non-intrusive, and leaves everyone healthy and safe.
Katelyn Hefter is pursuing a double major in biomedical engineering and neuroscience in Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. As a Huang Fellow, she hopes to explore the intersection of engineering and ethics in artificial intelligence and neural prosthetics and combat stigma and stereotypes against neurodiversity.