Episode 6: The Trouble with America's Captive Tigers
Dec 02, 2020 6 mins, 57 secs

Less than 4,000 tigers live in the wild, but experts say there may be more than 10,000 captive in the U.S., where ownership of big cats is largely unregulated.

Overheard’s Peter Gwin talks with National Geographic Channel's Mariana van Zeller about her investigation into tiger trafficking and how wildlife tourism encourages a cycle of breeding and mistreatment.

And the whole time I'm thinking, do these people know that there are dozens of tigers living right next to them.

In 2019 she was producing a story about tiger tourism for a National Geographic Channel show called Trafficked.

And it’s run by one of the biggest captive tiger breeders in America: Doc Antle!

VAN ZELLER: He has owned actually since 1983, this sort of 50-acre property in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, called T.I.G.E.R.S.

VAN ZELLER: It’s basically a park, a safari park essentially where people can go visit all these wild animals.

And he has an array of, you know, dozens of tigers and chimpanzees and a very famous elephant called Bubbles that he likes to ride along around the park.

GWIN: But what most people are here for is the experience of getting to pet a tiger cub.

VAN ZELLER: You've got couples there on their honeymoon, you know, anniversaries, families with grandkids, and you know, most of people are just, you know, love tigers, have never been this close to tigers, and this is their opportunity to be close to a wild animal.

VAN ZELLER: Critics of Doc Antle and his park will say that they are bred for profits.

GWIN: And those critics say that commercial tiger breeding is the reason why captive tigers in the U.S?

actually outnumber tigers in the wild?

And this is Overheard at National Geographic: a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

Today the World Wildlife Fund estimates there are only about 3,900 left in the wild—and that’s largely because people have moved into many of the areas where tigers live, reducing their habitat.

VAN ZELLER: In the United States, there are anywhere between five to ten thousand captive tigers, which is a crazy number.

VAN ZELLER: And there was one name that we kept hearing again and again, and that was Doc Antle.

But conservationists and animal welfare advocates say park operators like Doc Antle are really breeding tigers so they can have a steady supply of cubs for customers to pet.

VAN ZELLER: So we're sitting around this sort of big circular area and they start bringing the tiger cubs around!

They brought about four or five tiger cubs.

VAN ZELLER: And then there was one tiger that actually came around that I also—came and sat on my lap?

VAN ZELLER: I was supposed to be happy and exhilarated with this experience, but deep inside it was troubling for me.

VAN ZELLER: You know, Peter, I wish I could say yes, but the truth is that not for me, because the whole time I'm thinking about what I've heard from all the experts, about the way—how you see the tiger cubs being handed over from lap to lap and hand to hand.

And the whole time when it landed on my lap, the whole time I'm thinking, you know, that I am just one more lap and one more hand.

VAN ZELLER: So he's really trying to sell this idea that any money that is spent at this park that is ultimately part of that money at least will end up in conservation and trying to rescue wild tigers.

VAN ZELLER: The tigers seemingly look very like they're very well taken care of.

VAN ZELLER: So it's sometimes harder, you know, to find what are the holes in this.

And visitors pay thousands for other special experiences with animals, like getting to swim with a tiger.

So the money that people spend here is visibly active in the wild, saving wildlife on a daily basis, and has been doing so for 35 years.

GWIN: But she couldn’t get a detailed answer for how much money is spent on saving wild tigers or where and how it’s spent.

Doc Antle needs to have lots of tiger cubs to keep his customers happy?

At about three months, the cubs grow big enough to be dangerous to people.

And tigers born in roadside zoos can’t be released into the wild.

And even if they could….These owners often cross-breed tigers with lions, and mix tigers from different sub-species—so like a Bengal with a Siberian, which would never happen in the wild.

Biologists say because of those mixed genetics, those tigers can’t be used to restore wild populations.

VAN ZELLER: So one of the biggest questions out there is what happens to these tigers once they reach what—once they become adults and they just become too expensive to handle.

Um, it's just like some discoloration that happens.

Like on this side, you can see just red discoloration as well.

And then, you know, like their roar and stuff.

That shows a little bit more of their like, you know, power.

Do you ever feel like you've made a connection and you could actually, you know, interact with them.

So, like, if we were in the enclosure, even if he was being playful, and, you know, jumping on us, gain, he's a 500-pound tiger with razor sharp claws and teeth.

GWIN: Hey there, this is Peter Gwin, I’m calling from…My name is Peter Gwin and I’m an editor at National Geographic...This is Peter Gwin calling....I was looking for Exotic Bob, I got this number off of...I saw you guys actually had an advertisement for tiger cubs and we’re working on a story about tiger ownership and just wanted to hear more about what that involved...

I mean, this is like a, you know, such a wild creature and such a powerful creature that just sounds so, you know, risky, I guess, to somebody who's never been in a cage before.

GWIN: But as much as Bill loved his tigers, he believes that many people shouldn’t have them?

RATHBURN: I've never advocated for private ownership of tigers because most people either are not able to or are not willing to make the financial commitment that’s required to own them safely.

GWIN: Are there any specific instances or case studies that you know about that you can sort of like, say this is example A of why it’s not a good idea to have tigers in people's backyards or roadside zoos, etc..

Or in some cases, authorities just found some tigers wandering on the side of the road, not sure where they came from.

DYLEWSKY: So, you know, we're talking about someone like you or like me who says,.

GWIN: There are still few places in the world where wild tigers prowl freely.

As a part of her reporting for Trafficked, Mariana traveled to forest in Thailand to join a team of rangers there patrolling the area for poachers.They asked her not to disclose the name of the forest to protect the wild tigers living there.

VAN ZELLER: And it was a wild experience.

VAN ZELLER: And it was one of the most frightening experiences of my life.

But they laughed because a wild tiger sighting--even here in the heart of tiger country--is extremely rare.

VAN ZELLER: It sort of gave me that respect that I believe we should have for tigers, which is if I was lucky enough to see a tiger, it should be seen in the wild.

For Mariana van Zeller's reporting on the tiger trade and other black markets around the world, tune into National Geographic Channel's series Trafficked.

If you’re interested in learning more about captive tigers in the U.S., make sure to check out National Geographic’s coverage of this issue.

Learn about what the Netflix series Tiger King left out about captive tigers and how visitors of roadside zoos can pose health risks to big cats

And check out how some of the series’ characters, like Doc Antle and Jeff Lowe, have been penalized for their treatment of wild animals

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