Petition seeks rulemaking under Animal Health Protection Act & Animal Welfare Act
WASHINGTON D.C.––Nearly 200 years of entrepreneurs speculatively breeding white tigers and lion/tiger hybrids are enough, say a coalition of animal advocacy organizations and several leading sanctuaries where “tigons,” “ligers,” and “liligers” have lived out their days after proving no longer profitable for exhibition, performance, or further sale and resale as exotic pets.
The nine-member coalition, headed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, on May 19, 2017 formally petitioned the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service to initiate the federal rulemaking process to make breeding either white tigers or lion/tiger hybrids a violation of the Animal Health Protection Act of 2002 and the Animal Welfare Act of 1966.
Hybrids came into vogue in Victorian times
An 1825 engraving by British artist G.B. Whittaker, showing two liger cubs born the year before, attests that lions and tigers were hybridized almost as soon as they were imported to Europe and the U.S. in significant numbers. A tigon, bred by the Princess of Jamnagar, India, was sent as a gift to Queen Victoria in 1837.
For most of the next 150 years leading zoos and circuses competed to produce exotic hybrids for exhibition, a practice that faded out only after the United Nations in 1973 introduced the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Enforcement of CITES eventually ended the “bring ‘em back alive” era of filling zoos with wild-caught specimens. Obliged to concentrate their breeding programs on producing replacements for the most popular parts of their collections, most zoos gradually lost interest in breeding hybrids which would never themselves be reproductively viable.
Petition does not necessarily mean a new rule
Submitting a petition formally requesting that a new federal rule be introduced does not necessarily mean anything will happen. Should the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service reject the petition from PETA, the ALDF, and the sanctuarians, the petitioners might next sue in federal court, alleging that USDA-APHIS has refused to take action necessary to enforce the intent of Congress in passing existing laws.
The petitioners might also make renewed efforts to persuade Congress to reinforce or clarify the Animal Health Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act, to establish that forbidding breeding genetically mutated or hybridized exotic cats is meant by Congress to be illegal, even if the letter of the laws in question did not previously say so.
Process may take years
Conversely, the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service may accept the petition from PETA, the ALDF, and the sanctuarians, responding by proposing some version of the new rule or rules requested.
The proposed new regulatory language would then go through a public comment period, and perhaps some negotiation of amended language to satisfy interested parties other than the petitioners, for example exotic cat breeders and exhibitors.
Altogether, the rulemaking process might take years to actually bring into effect a ban on producing white tigers, tigons, and ligers, or might be derailed entirely by organized opposition or administrative indifference.
But filing the petition can jump-start the rulemaking
Filing the petition, however, can jump-start the procedures, including by attracting Congressional interest to the issues the petitioners have raised.
The nine petitioners include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, representing animal advocacy interests; the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, collectively representing many of the best-reputed sanctuarians; the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary near Tampa, Florida; the Keepers of the Wild sanctuary in Arizona; The Wildcat Sanctuary in Minnesota; and the Performing Animal Welfare Society and Lions, Tigers & Bears sanctuaries in California.
The petitioners have asked USDA-APHIS for a regulatory amendment stipulating that “Each dealer or exhibitor housing big cats shall include within its written program of veterinary care details specifying the methods and practices being employed to prevent inbreeding and selective breeding for deleterious genetic mutations that are associated with a known risk of disease, injury, or death, including breeding to create white tigers, ligers, tigons, and other variations of interfelid hybrids.”
In addition, or instead, contending “that selectively breeding for rare and deleterious genetic anomalies or to create felids who do not exist in the wild already violates the letter and spirit of [existing regulations],” the petitioners “propose that the USDA use the following language, to clarify its position on selective breeding for rare characteristics with an amendment to its Animal Care Policy Manual:
“Rare genetic expressions”
“Selective breeding of big cats for rare genetic expressions, such as to create white tigers, and the intentional breeding of different big-cat species to create ligers, tigons, liligers, titigons, and other interfelid species hybrids have been deliberately pursued by exhibitors and dealers in order to engineer the creation of rare and exotic-looking cats for purposes of attracting interest from buyers and facility visitors. These breeding practices are not innocuous and are condemned and prohibited by the zoological and conservation communities because of their known risk for causing neonatal mortality, birth defects, blindness, and other serious medical conditions that negatively affect the welfare, quality of life, and life expectancy of the cats.
The intentional breeding for rare genetic traits in big cats—including breeding to create white tigers, ligers, tigons, and other hybrid big cats—is an indication that veterinary-care methods are not sufficient to prevent the risk of disease and injury in big cats.”
340 licensees keep 1,900 tigers
Explains the petition seeking the regulatory amendments, “A review of inventories reported on the APHIS Animal Care Information System Search Tool (ACIS) completed prior to the agency’s abrupt removal of the database from its website” soon after U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration took office, “suggested that as recently as August 2015, approximately 340 USDA licensees were keeping a total of approximately 1,900 tigers in the United States—and the total number of big cats, including tigers, lions, and interfelids, is even greater.
“Roadside zoos account for the vast majority of USDA licensees with big cats in their animal inventories,” the petitioners alleged.
“The mere act of creating white tigers and hybrid cats necessarily entails ‘poor care,’” the petitioners continued, “and the USDA should take proactive steps to curtail the practice.
Existing evidence demonstrates that purposely inbreeding big cats for rare genetic traits and anomalies and crossbreeding different species to create ‘Frankencats’ is inhumane.”
Continued the petition, “The petitioners’ request is not only necessary to the fulfillment of the purpose and the intent of the Animal Welfare Act but also reflective of the positions held by groups including, but not limited to, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative.
It is widely recognized in the scientific and zoological communities that inbreeding for rare genetic anomalies in tigers to create white coloring carries a significant risk for serious negative health conditions,” the petition detailed, as does hybridizing lions, tigers, and other exotic cats.
Inbreeding vs. outcrossing
Not acknowledged by the petitioners, however, is that the intensive inbreeding necessary to produce white tigers is to some extent a process opposite to the outcrossing done to produce ligers, tigons, et al, with somewhat more varied effects.
Texas A&M University geneticist William Murphy in 2016 published in the journal Genome Research data suggesting that at least 10 instances of naturally occurring hybridization among big cat species in the wild, mostly long ago, have contributed ancestry to leopards, lions, tigers, and pumas as we know them today.
One result of such hybridization in the distant past may be that while most attempts to produce hybrid exotic cats in captivity produce short-lived and often deformed animals, who lead miserable existences as the petitioners allege, there have been occasional cross-bred exotic cats who enjoyed exceptional “hybrid vigor.”
One example was Shasta, a ligress born at the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City on May 14, 1948, who lived her entire life there in an era when even many of the most reputable of accredited zoos displayed hybrids, and died there in 1972 at age 24. No lion or tiger is known to have lived longer, though one of two superannuated tigers named Bengali who died at Big Cat Rescue came close.
One tigon lived longer, however: Ranjini, who lived her whole life at the Alipore Zoological Gardens in Kolkata, India, 1973-1999. Bred from a Bengal tiger and an African lion during the same time frame that the Alipore Zoo produced Cubanacan, a second-generation lion/tiger hybrid (1979-1991), Ranjini became a cause celebré after the Indian Express reported in July 1998 that she was close to death.
Observing rats nibbling her tail and shriveled limbs, and that she had lost most of her hair and developed body sores, Compassionate Crusaders Trust representative Purnima Toolsidas petitioned the Central Zoo Authority in New Delhi to order euthanasia, with supporting letters from a variety of zoo and exotic wildlife experts.
“It will be worthwhile to see how long the liger can survive,” responded Calcutta Zoo director Adhir B. Das.
The Central Zoo Authority of India merely appointed a committee to study the case, after Ranjini’s death began to enforce a prohibition on breeding and exhibiting hybrid animals of any sort.
One in 1,000?
Worldwide, there may have been one example of an unusually long-lived and mostly healthy hybrid big cat among each thousand such cats produced. Among the other best-known cases were four ligers from two litters born in 1935 and reared together at the Bloemfontein Zoological Gardens in Cape Town, South Africa. Three of them, a male and two females, lived until 1953.
There is no “hybrid vigor,” by contrast, among white tigers. All white tigers in North America are descended from Mohan, an albinistic white male captured in 1951 in central India.
Explains the petition against breeding white tigers and lion/tiger hybrids, “Captive white tigers in the U.S. are the result of not only inbreeding but also crossbreeding between Amur and Bengal tigers who carry the recessive gene” for light coloration.
Accredited zoo policies
The American Zoo Association, European Association of Zoos & Aquaria, and the Zoo Aquarium Association of Australasia all now have policies against breeding white tigers, but the AZA policy is surprisingly record, introduced in 2008 and not finalized until June 2011.
As far back as 1983, then-New York Zoological Association director William Conway argued that “White tigers are freaks. It is not the role of a zoo to show two-headed calves and white tigers.”
Agreed Minnesota Zoo director of conservation Ronald Tilson, who doubled for decades as chair of the AZA Tiger Species Survival Plan, “White tigers are an aberration artificially bred and proliferated by a few [exhibitors] who do this for economic rather than conservation reasons.”
But opposing Conway and Tilson were others, including 39-year Cincinnati Zoo director Edward Maruska, who argued that breeding white tiger cubs had “proven to be immensely popular with visitors,” and had “increased attendance in those institutions housing them.”
The AZA finally banned breeding white tigers a decade after Maruska ended his tenure as a zoo director with a short stint at the Los Angeles Zoo.
Siegfried & Roy
Charge the petitioners to the USDA, “Despite the known risks and lack of conservation value associated with breeding to create white tigers, exhibitors like Siegfried & Roy continue to mislead the public into believing that they are a rare subspecies rather than a genetic anomaly. Siegfried & Roy have had as many as 58 white tigers in their inventory at one time. The pair continue to breed to create white tigers for exhibition at Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden at the Mirage in Las Vegas.”
Roy Horn and Siegfried Fischbacher, performing together since they met on a cruise ship in 1959, are widely credited with helping to popularize “positive reinforcement” animal training, but may also have done more to popularize and promote traffic in white tigers than all other white tiger breeders combined.
400,000 people per year
Headliners at the Mirage hotel and casino beginning in 1990, Siegfried & Roy at peak performed before 400,000 people a year, generating $44 million in revenue.
That ended abruptly on Horn’s 59th birthday in 2003. Midway through a solo show with a seven-year-old white tiger named Montecore, the tiger refused to lie down on command. Horn rapped Montecore on the nose with his microphone. Montecore swiped at Horn’s arm. Horn stumbled. Montecore seized Horn by the neck, crushing his windpipe, and dragged Horn off stage as Horn tried to beat him away with the microphone.
Forced to suspend the Siegfried & Roy shows, the Mirage laid off 267 workers, but continued to house the Siegfried & Roy animals, including Montecore, at the Secret Garden
The petition to the USDA also describes the activities of many less prominent white tiger and lion/tiger hybrid breeders, for example “Bhagavan ‘Doc’ Antle, whose South Carolina roadside zoo has a notorious history of Animal Welfare Act violations and is currently the subject of an open USDA investigation launched in November 2015. Antle takes his experiments to a whole new level,” the petitioners charge, “by breeding to create hybrid white ligers.”
Continues the petition, “The Wild Animal Safari, a drive-through animal park in Pine Mountain, Georgia, breeds to create hybrid cats and reportedly had the largest known inventory of ligers in the country in 2005. Despite admitting that ligers in its inventory have suffered from neurological disorders that manifested in ‘head shakes,’ it appears not to be deterred from continuing its breeding program.
“In Oklahoma, exhibitor Joe Schreibvogel,” also known as Joseph Maldonado and Joe Exotic, “sells white tigers, ligers, liligers, and tiligers to private owners and exhibitors all over the country,” the petition to the USDA alleges. “Transfer records show that just between May 2015 and September 2015, he sold three white tigers and three tiligers, as well as a liger, who went to a private owner named Angela Bazzell in Rockwall, Texas. Bazzell’s September 4, 2015, Facebook post and associated comments indicate that after purchasing the liger, she almost immediately placed the cat at another facility in Texas.”
As yet another example, the petition recites, “The DeYoung Family Zoo, a roadside zoo in Wallace, Michigan, exhibits a white tiger named Emo who was born at another facility and has a multitude of health problems and birth defects, including deformed paws and crossed eyes, resulting from inbreeding for white coloring.”
Not mentioned by the petitioners was perhaps the most notorious incident ever in the history of lion/tiger hybridization: the September 1995 escape of as many as 46 big cats from the former Ligertown compound near Lava Hot Springs, Idaho. Seventeen wandering big cats were eventually shot in the vicinity. Another 27 big cats were relocated to the Wildlife Waystation sanctuary in southern California.
Ligertown owners Robert Fieber and Dotti Martin, who had previously run afoul of wildlife authorities in Oregon, eventually served 11 days in jail for related offenses.