Where the Wild Things Are (Not)

Reed Lessing reflects on the Huang Fellows' visit to the NC Tiger Rescue

When I joined the Huang Fellows program, I wouldn’t have guessed that we’d be spending our weekdays surrounded by 400-pound tigers. But last Thursday morning, we set down our pipettes and stopped running lines of code. Piled into cars with the AC on full blast, we set off for the Carolina Tiger Rescue for a crash course in animal ethics.

Fielding a flood of questions from our group, our tour guides Janet, Nancy, and Alan led us through Carolina Tiger Rescue’s 35 acres and its separate enclosures uniquely tailored to each animal’s needs. At each new enclosure, our guides painted colorful stories of each animal’s background and personality. Beausoleil, a cougar first spotted roaming in a family’s backyard in the state of Washington, is named after the local officer who helped relocate him and avoid euthanasia 24 hours after his capture. Tio, a tiger rescued from a facility in the Southwest, loves the smell of Aqua Velvet Musk aftershave.

But one pattern was clear: all of these animals had been rescued from dangerous situations where they were kept as pets, profited off of in roadside zoos, or housed in failing sanctuaries without adequate care. Not only is the exotic pet trade a danger to the human caretakers involved, but the captive animals can never be relocated to the wild because they lack critical survival instincts after prolonged exposure to people.

“Tio, a tiger rescued from a facility in the Southwest, loves the smell of Aqua Velvet Musk aftershave.”

'22 Huang Fellows visiting the NC Tiger Rescue

That’s where the Carolina Tiger Rescue comes in, providing a lifelong home for tigers, lions, servals, and more that cannot safely return to the wild. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that the number of tigers in the United States exceeds that of the wild. As a nonprofit, government-funded wildcat sanctuary, Carolina Tiger is dedicated to its rescue mission, education of the public, and advocacy for wild cats.

For me, one takeaway from our visit was the importance of examining how science is applied.

Take Saber, for example. With striking white fur and characteristic blue eyes, Saber was bred to participate in an act by Dirk Arthur, a magician known for his illusion shows featuring exotic animals. Why Saber? Like all other white tigers, he carries a mutant recessive gene that arises after years of inbreeding and leads to them being cross-eyed—often coupled with deafness, scoliosis, or epilepsy. In the wild, a mother might kill her white tiger cub, fearing that its snowy fur might invite predators. But in the human entertainment industry, white tigers become the main attraction despite the resulting health issues.

Saber’s story serves as a reminder that science—in this case, our understanding of genetics—is a tool that we can wield in many ways—from entertainment and exploitation to impactful advances in research.

After last week’s exercise in podcasting, the Carolina Tiger Rescue was also a lesson in the capacity of the media to direct public attention toward—or too often away from—science.

“…the Carolina Tiger Rescue was also a lesson in the capacity of the media to direct public attention toward—or too often away from—science.

Tiger Enclosure featuring Two Tigers

Consider one of Netflix’s most popular pandemic-era productions: Tiger King. In talking with me, Janet pointed out that the hit TV show missed an opportunity to bring exposure to exploitation at roadside zoos—ill-equipped facilities that sometimes end with tigers housed in witness protection programs at places like the Carolina Tiger Rescue.

But more questions remained for me. How should we balance the need to make media engaging versus communicating meaningful science? Are the two mutually exclusive? Can future productions attract the same public attention without sensationalizing a dangerous example of animal exploitation for entertainment? With podcast training, Ted Talks, and a seminar with master storyteller Jeff Polish under our belt, perhaps that’s a question best answered by the Huang Fellows.

The Huang Fellowship aims to cultivate an understanding of science in the context of and in service to society. For me, our visit to the Carolina Tiger Rescue redefined the scope of the society—made of both humans and other living organisms—I hope to serve.

Reed Lessing, Huang Fellow ’25

Reed LessingReed is a sophomore from New York, NY, pursuing a major in Neuroscience and a certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship.