Legal Wildlife Crisis in the US?
On Tuesday, October 18, Terry Thompson, the owner of a wild animal preserve in Zanesville, Ohio, released dozens of exotic animals from their cages before killing himself. The released animals included Bengal tigers, which are endangered in the wild, as well as lions, mountain lions, and grizzly bears. The county police authorities had to put down those animals to ensure the safety of Zanesville citizens.
The fact that so many tigers, lions, wolves, grizzly bears, and even a baboon were at the mercy of a private individual, living in inhumane conditions, is distressing and alarming. It was not the fault of these majestic animals that they dispersed into the fields after years of cruel incarceration, as the pictures from Zanesville attest.
The Zanesville shooting is only the tip of the iceberg. While U.S. federal law prohibits interstate commerce in tigers, it is legal in states to own exotic and endangered animals: thousands of tigers and other rare animals are languishing in cages. According to WWF, eight states don’t have any laws pertaining to owning tigers, and 16 states allow private individuals to keep tigers, but require a state permit or registration. Why are private citizens allowed to own endangered animals in the U.S.? What are the implications of this for true conservation efforts spearheaded by the U.S.?
There is no evidence that these tigers, which are captive bred, enter the international black market in tiger parts. But the fact that they can be legally bought and sold in many states creates and reinforces negative perceptions in the tiger’s native countries. We already face the complex realities of “tiger farms” in China, Thailand, Vietnam, and other East Asian countries requesting them to phase out these farms. It is time for the U.S. to show leadership and phase out its private captive tiger population.
The U.S. has also emerged as a major importer of wildlife and wildlife parts. Private individuals in rich countries such as the United States are indulging their whims and fancies without understanding the global implication of their local demand. Only 3,200 tigers are left in the wild and every day a tiger is poached to feed the insatiable greed of some rich and unhealthy person in Asia and around the globe who believe in traditional medicine or want to eat tiger meat as a symbol of status. Tiger range countries are struggling to save whatever is left of their natural heritage and the U.S. must continue to support their efforts including by banning private possession of wild tigers within its borders.