Free Tony (The Tiger)!

Posted: Oct 23, 2003 12:00 AM

During the past few weeks, there's been a rash of tiger "nonattacks" in the United States. Las Vegas performer Roy Horn is still hospitalized from what people around him insist was not a tiger attack during one of his shows. New York City "tiger man" Antoine Yates will tell anyone who will listen that the tiger he kept in his apartment would never hurt anyone, even though Yates is now walking with a limp and a cane.

Can you say "in denial"? A bizarre sentimentality makes people believe their intimate connection with tigers eliminates their dangerousness. "The idea that 'love conquers all' is baloney," says Richard Farinato of the Humane Society of the United States, who has years of experience working with big cats. "People say, 'The cat didn't attack me,' but even if these aren't technically attacks, the result is always the same: People get hurt."

America has an obsession with big cats. There are as many as 7,000 tigers in the United States, and another 10,000 other kinds of big cats. Legitimate zoos account for a few hundred of the cats, with the rest kept by roadside exhibitors, and the vast majority kept as private pets. The private ownership of tigers and other big cats is bad for the animals, and sometimes for the people involved, and is a piece of Americana that should end.

A tiger in the wild will roam as much as 100 miles a day. It's a skilled swimmer and, when awake, is constantly stimulated, hunting for prey. Whatever else you can say for it: Life as a killing machine is always interesting. As a private pet, a tiger is doomed to a sedentary existence.

Almost every week there is a case where private ownership of a big cat has led to an attack (or a "misunderstanding"), or the revelation of horrific conditions for the animal, or some other problem. Just imagine -- if you can stomach it -- the waste created by 500-pound creatures. "And they sure as hell don't use a litter box," says Humane Society official Wayne Pacelle.

Keeping animals in captivity and doing awful things to them can be perfectly justified. Agriculture and medical research have legitimate public benefits. But there is no purpose to someone keeping a tiger in his back yard, or in his spare bedroom (like Yates), except one person's whim.

Then there are roadside zoos. There are roughly 200 accredited zoos in the United States. But there are more than 2,200 exhibitors, meaning that only 10 percent meet the standards necessary for accreditation. Roadside zoos tend to keep their animals in old-style cement-and-chain-link cages and don't duplicate the cats' habitat. They tend to be seasonal and sell their animals frequently.

This contributes to the large tiger trade in the United States. Breeders sell cubs over the Internet or at auctions. A tiger can produce three to five litters a year with three to five cubs each, which are sometimes shipped out in a matter of days.

The Humane Society is lobbying for a federal law to shut down the interstate trade in big cats. It is also pushing for bans at the state level on ownership of big cats as pets. Nineteen states currently have such bans, and other states should adopt them as well, especially Florida, Texas and Nevada, where tiger ownership is practically as popular as owning hermit crabs.

Apologists for the private ownership of tigers argue that it keeps tigers alive for possible reintroduction into the wilderness. But most private tigers are too inbred to be reliably viable in the wild. The tigers that would be appropriate for reintroduction are those in accredited zoos, where they are kept on a rigorously controlled breeding program.

Tigers and other big cats are indeed fascinating and awesome creatures. But the best way to "show our love" is to keep them out of private hands.