It may or may not surprise you but owning a crocodile, a chimpanzee, a lion, a tiger and a menagerie of other exotic animals is not only legal in many states and countries, it is also a booming multi-billion dollar industry. People typically buy an exotic animal when it is young, charming and relatively harmless only to discover that those traits tend to disappear when the animal reaches sexual maturity. The pet owners then usually have a more exotic animal on their hands then they know what to do with – and many send their unruly “400-pound pet” to private animal sanctuaries, many of which have little to no regulating oversight.
With big cats making up a growing proportion of the exotic pet industry, we are unsurprisingly seeing a concomitant increase in big cat attacks on humans – at sanctuaries, in residential neighborhoods and inside family homes. One of the latest deaths was head keeper Renee Radziwon-Chapman, 36, who was mauled by a cougar at an Oregon sanctuary this month. Since 1990, in the United States alone, 260-plus big cats have escaped their enclosures, 23 people (including 5 children) have been killed and more than 250 people have been mauled. These are only the attacks that have been reported in the media and counted by Big Cat Rescue as there is no reporting agency that keeps track of such records. Quite likely, these numbers are much higher. (For a state-by-state count of big cat attacks tallied by Big Cat Rescue click here.)
Over-confidence by people in close contact with “their” big cats often leads to tragic and gory consequences, even among highly experienced caretakers such as Ms. Radziwon-Chapman. Last year, John Varty, a filmmaker and experienced tiger handler ended up with two broken ribs, deep puncture wounds and lacerations to his hands and legs after a tiger attacked him on his tiger farm, which he established in South Africa to create a free-roaming tiger population outside Asia. ”There is a certain psychology at work when you work with these animals day in, day out,” said Vernon Weir of the American Sanctuary Association. “You begin to feel comfortable around them. But they’re still wild animals, you don’t know what can set them off, and the results can be tragic.”
Experts are thus rightly concerned about the recent growth in private big cat sanctuaries. These sanctuaries are largely unregulated, anyone can open one and uniform safety protocols are lacking. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, there are about 80 of these big cat sanctuaries in the U.S and only about a dozen of them are certified. Yet, as Weir, reminds us, “It’s a risky business when you’re dealing with dangerous wild animals. You can’t leave any room for error.”
Next page: Top Ten Reasons Why Big Cats Make Bad Pets