Some 25,000 wild animals live in captivity outside U.S. zoos, many horribly abused.
Pat Craig squats down and stares at the tiger. The big cat locks its green-amber eyes on Craig and, shoulders hunched, creeps toward him. Craig flattens his palm against the chain-link fence and leans even closer as the 700-pound tiger approaches. Then, with his top teeth perched on his lower lip, beaver-style, Craig blows three short puffs of air. Pfft. Pfft. Pfft. The tiger brings his face inches from Craig’s and blows three puffs back. In tiger language, they have just said hello.
After this ritual, called chuffing, Craig strokes the cat’s pink nose and soft forehead, and the tiger moans as if his biggest itch has been scratched. “Hi, Ricky.” Craig’s voice has climbed an octave. “You’re a good boy.”
Ricky lives in the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, along with 73 other tigers. But the sanctuary wasn’t their first stop. Many of these cats were living in squalid conditions while earning their keep in roadside zoos, portrait studios or county fairs. Others served as breeding machines, their young often shipped away in boxes before weaning. And some were owned by private citizens who abandoned them when they outgrew the cute kitten stage.
By conservative estimates, some 25,000 wild animals live in captivity outside the zoo system in the United States, many in inhumane conditions. Owners who use their exotics for commercial reasons may have proper legal permits, but the licenses give the animals only minimal protection. And although there are laws against selling exotic animals across state lines, in several states there is no prohibition against owning, say, a grizzly bear or an African lion.