By some estimates, a couple of thousand tigers live in Texas, many in backyards and most not registered with the state, which is believed to be the second-largest tiger population in the world behind India.
Texas allows ownership of exotic pets and requires owners to register their animals with the state, but as of February only 50 tigers were recorded, said Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Animal rights advocates say many tigers go unregistered because county enforcement of the registration rules is often lax.
Most Texas counties have banned tiger ownership, but the state doesn’t track which counties allow tigers and which don’t, making it difficult, if not impossible to track unregistered tigers in the state, said Skip Trimble, advisory director of the Texas Humane Legislation Network.
“The tragedy here is that we do have laws, but the laws are not effective in any reasonable manner,” Trimble said. “It’s really very, very sickening to us, when we worked as hard as we did to get the (tiger registration) law passed, now after 15 years to know … it’s just not happening.”
Trimble said when the state does not know where privately owned tigers are located, it cannot check to ensure that the animals are being properly fed and cared for. In case of an escape, a tiger can pose a safety threat for communities and first responders.
Tigers are endangered with just an estimated 3,000 to 4,500 living in the wild, in South and Southeast Asia, China and far eastern Russia. A century ago, there were an estimated 100,000 living in the wild. Tigers have fallen prey to poaching, retaliatory killings and a shrinking habitat, according to U.S. conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.
Williamson, Bastrop and Bexar counties are among those that prohibit owning tigers as pets. Other counties, such as Lubbock and Jefferson, allow private ownership. In Travis County, only those with a Class C exhibitor’s license are allowed to own big cats, according to data from the Texas Humane Legislation Network.
Trimble said the fact that it is relatively easy for people to buy tigers makes them even harder to track.
“You can buy them online, or you can buy them on the side of the highway, or you can trade them with somebody,” Trimble said. “There’s nothing that requires a sales slip for the seller. So the seller doesn’t have to report anything, and the buyer doesn’t have to report anything.”
Arguing for a national ban
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia ban ownership of exotic cats as pets, while four states have no laws regarding their regulation.
Leigh Henry, director of wildlife policy and wildlife conservation for the World Wildlife Fund, estimates there are about 5,000 tigers in the United States, but he adds there is no way to definitively count them.
Henry said lack of consistency in regulation and enforcement in the U.S. could have an impact on a global scale because when the government does not know where exotic animals are, they are more susceptible to fall into the illegal trade, which is the No. 1 threat to wild tigers.
“There are more tigers in the U.S. than there are left in the wild, and there’s something very wrong with that picture,” Henry said. “And it makes it very difficult when you’re in international meetings with governments for the U.S. to be a good (anti-poaching) advocate when we have 5,000 tigers of our own that are very poorly regulated.”
Henry said standardizing big cat rules across the country could help restrict the tiger population.
“If one state bans ownership and another doesn’t, you’re going to see animals flowing across state lines, and it’s just much more simple for enforcement purposes if those are blanket laws across the U.S. at the federal level,” Henry said.
Henry helped draft a proposal in Congress a decade ago to ban ownership of dangerous exotic animals in every state. The bill died in committee, along with similar bills in subsequent years.
A bill introduced last year, Big Cats Public Safety and Protection Act, had 123 House co-sponsors, but just one from Texas, U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi.
Farenthold stepped down this month amid sexual harassment claims. He didn’t respond to questions about his interest in banning tiger ownership.
Safety and rights
Louis Dorfman, head of the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary outside of Fort Worth, thinks that for Texans, the right to owning tigers is considered an individual’s right.
“Responsible ownership of an animal should be an individual’s prerogative, but also it shouldn’t infringe on the rights of others,” said Dorfman, who has 23 tigers that are not registered with the state, although his sanctuary is registered.
Dorfman, 80, who has cared for more than 100 tigers over his lifetime, said tigers can be cared for safely and responsibly.
But state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said between 1990 and 2013, more children were killed or hurt by big cats in Texas than in any other state. During those years, more than 22 people nationwide were killed by big cats, according to a post by the Humane Society.
In 2013, Lucio sponsored Senate Bill 1627 banning private ownership of big cats. The bill was referred to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, but the committee didn’t vote on it.
Patti Clark, director of the Austin Zoo, a nonprofit rescue zoo, said she tries to encourage people to not buy exotic animals as pets not only for public safety, but for the safety of the animals as well.
“People are not set up to provide the right kind of housing, a tiger’s proper diet and appropriate veterinary care for these exotic animals,” Clark said. “Once that animal grows up … they’re not going to be able to interact with that animal. They’re not going to be able to provide for that animal.”
The Austin Zoo has three tigers, one of which was purchased at a truck stop by an 18-wheeler driver, according to zoo information.