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Wild tiger habitats have come under increasing pressure in recent decades as a result of practices such as poaching, deforestation, and the establishment of palm fruit plantations. Given the continued decimation of tiger populations in the wild, many Conservation experts have come to believe that the only way to ensure the species’ long-term survival is to maintain and breed a stable population of captive tigers, with the hope of eventually releasing them back into the wild when conditions become more favorable.

However, certain captive tiger breeders are motivated by profit, rather than a sincere desire to help ensure the continuation of the species. Sadly, there are now more tigers in American backyards than there are in the wild. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that there are 5,000 captive tigers in the U.S., significantly exceeding the remaining 3,200 wild tigers in the world as a whole. The demand for “exotic” tigers from roadside zoos and circuses has led to the proliferation of illegal breeding operations, as well as the abusive white tiger industry.

Below, we share the stories of some tigers born in captivity, and ask the question: when circumstances allow, is it possible for these animals to be successfully reintroduced into the wild?

Tony the Truck Stop Tiger

If any story displays just how tragic it is when a tiger is forced to spend their entire life behind bars, it’s Tony’s. Tony the Tiger has endured a fourteen-year confinement at the Tiger Truck Stop in Grand Tete, Louisiana, run by Michael Sandlin. Here, he is exploited as a roadside attraction for the truck stop, subjected to the taunts and stares of customers, and continually exposed to traffic noises and exhaust fumes.

Despite of the fact that the sale and ownership of big cats was prohibited in Louisiana in 2006, Sandlin has been permitted to keep Tony, so long as he files for a permit each year.

To date, Big Cat Rescue, The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, and The Wildcat Sanctuary in Minnesota have all offered to provide him with an alternative home, where he would receive adequate space, veterinary care, and nutrition; but, their offers have been ignored. However, Tony’s army of admirers around the world have vowed not to give up the fight to set him free.

Keeping Tigers in Captivity: An Ideal Conservation Solution or Selfish Sham? Tony the Tiger May Never Escape His Truck Stop Captivity. Here’s How You Can Help

The Tigers of Betty Young

In 1996, Michael Nichols, photographer and editor-at-large with National Geographic magazine, documented the more than 50 tiger residents of Betty Young’s ten-acre compound in Arkansas. Most of these animals had been discarded by guardians who, upon purchasing them for reasons of novelty, soon discovered that their new pets would grow to a weight of 400 pounds, and would require up to 5,000 pounds of raw meat a year.

While Young had set out with honorable intentions – wanting to liberate the animals from unfit guardians – there was no doubt that the living conditions of her 52 tigers were far from ideal. Unlike their fellow big cat, the lion, tigers are naturally solitary animals, who only live together in large groups when they are cubs.

Following this unusual photographic project, Nichols stated, “There really is no Conservation value to these private homes and captive tigers. Homes like Betty’s are a product of the fact that we have  let tigers into the system and they ultimately need to be treated morally and humanely. One of the biggest issues for me is that we shouldn’t let exotic pets breed. It’s a huge mistake – you’re just making more of something that already isn’t good. There’s just no way a predator can live that close to humans.”

Keeping Tigers in Captivity: An Ideal Conservation Solution or Selfish Sham? National Geographic

Tara, the Captive-to-Wild Tigress

In 1976, a three-month-old female tiger named Tara, who had been born at Twycross Zoo in England, was taken to the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve in the Lahimpur Kheri district of India by tiger conservationist ‘Billy’ Arjan Singh. Before her arrival at the reserve, other experts had expressed their doubts over the relocation, pointing out that Tara was most likely a Bengal-Siberian mix, and should not be introduced into Dudhwa’s population of pure Bengal tigers.

Tara was initially slow to break free of her reliance on human protection, choosing to spend most of her nights near Singh’s home, and failing to successfully hunt prey until the age of seventeen months – by which time a wild-born tiger cub would have acquired a great deal of hunting experience. She made a full return to the wild at about two years of age, and later produced at least four litters of cubs.

Later in her life, it was claimed that Tara had turned man-eater, and had killed 24 people, though these reports were never proven beyond all doubt. It is also not certain when, or how, she died. Singh has always claimed that she passed away in 1992, and her body was never found, while others claim that she was killed at the hands of a poacher.

 Keeping Tigers in Captivity: An Ideal Conservation Solution or Selfish Sham?

What’s Next for the Tigers in American Backyards?

Leigh Henry, WWF Species Policy Expert, has previously spoken out on the subject of how vital it is “for America to clear out captive big cats from our backyards. This is a matter not only of public safety, but also of preventing tigers from being fed into the massive illegal tiger trade driven by a booming black market for tiger products.”

Unfortunately, accredited sanctuaries are finding it more and more difficult to care for and rehome all of these neglected animals. The amount of animals Big Cat Rescue, a Tampa, Fla.-based organization, has been able to take in has been steadily decreasing each year. In 2013, they were asked to provide a home for thirty-seven big cats, and had to turn away twenty-five.

They said, “We cannot even begin to take in every exotic cat that has ended up in abusive and neglectful situations. More and more we are dedicating our time and resources to stopping the problem at its source, by educating people about the pet trade and entertainment industry. Although we are taking in fewer cats each year, we are working harder toward solutions that will ultimately benefit all exotic animals.”

Can Captive Tigers Be Returned to the Wild?

In spite of the best intentions behind any captive breeding program, once released, captive tigers will always be at a disadvantage in that they will not have been taught how to hunt prey by their mothers, and may not have acquired the necessary skills to adapt to life in the wild. Not to mention they may maintain a certain level of comfort around humans which can lead to dangerous encounters.

The Tiger Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to the Conservation of these majestic animals, has explained that there is a huge difference between “simply being able to hunt wild prey once in a while – as a common house cat does – and being able to survive on such behavior … Wild tigers must hunt to live, and there is strong evidence that despite their superior and awesome hunting abilities, even the most experienced tiger will lose a kill far more frequently than it succeeds – perhaps as often as twenty failures to each success. Tigers simply do not have an easy life, even when they are surrounded by lots of living prey in a natural setting.”

However, in a world where tigers’ natural homes continue to disappear by the minute, and the species is engaged in a desperate struggle to survive, responsible captive breeding programs may be the only way to save them from complete annihilation.

How Can YOU Help?

Helping to restore the world’s wild tiger populations relies on the preservation of the tiger’s natural habitat, as much as it does on the Conservation of tigers themselves. Check out these resources to learn how you can help protect the tiger.

Image source: Lefteris Katsouromallis/Flickr