Many people, from all walks of life, take an interest in wild cats. Where there are people, there are opinions. These spark debates on a wide range of subjects, from the problems of captive husbandry to private ownership. Some of the arguments are logical and some based on gut instinct and personal feeling. Under the circumstances it is almost impossible to reach a consensus.
The purpose of this page is to develop a deeper understanding of some of the issues. The following essays cover a few ‘hot topics’. They are written in the knowledge that not everyone will agree with the ideas expressed. Ideas undergoing the writing process: “The politics of Cats” “Environmentalist vs Environmentalnut”, “People that have exotic animals have less freedoms”
- What is the purpose of a zoo?
- Why do some people hate zoos?
- Ligers & Tigons & Bengal Cats, Oh My!
- Keeping a Wild Cat as a Pet
- White Tigers and Novelty
- All animal organizations are not the same
What is the Purpose of a Zoo?
This is a loaded question that can be answered many ways! I will render my option of what our zoos purpose is; you are welcome to disagree or agree! I have always felt that discussion and honesty in this area is needed and hope nothing I say is misconstrued as an attack on the zoo community at large. It has been very difficult for zoos over the years to have the same purpose year after year. Like any other organizations, zoos get pushed and pulled in all directions depending on public opinion. Ask the question; what is the purpose of your local zoo? Once a clear purpose is explained, you can make a determination if the purpose of the zoo is being met and if it meets with your approval. I think you might be surprised what you find out in relationship of what you thought! Our purpose at the Cat Haven is to save cats in the wild. Everything we do is predicated on that basic premise. With that as the backdrop, we don’t take cats others don’t want any more (rescue), we don’t rehabilitate cats to be returned back to the wild (rehab.), we don’t collect cats for our private indulgence (others). Every zoo has a purpose and they might have a different purpose than others. For example, rescue facilities are in the business of helping animals that need homes. It is a very different purpose from what we do at the Cat Haven. That doesn’t mean what we do here at the Cat Haven is more important; it is just different. At the Cat Haven, we don’t represent ourselves as a rescue facility and I would hope a rescue facility would not represent themselves as a conservation facility unless they did that type of work also. Find the purpose and see if the zoo is doing what you think a zoo should be doing!
In the first days of the zoo, animals were put on display for the purpose of people to see. Period! No considerations were given to the animals, the attention was given to the public viewing of the animals without risk of harm.The theme seemed to be one of entertainment! This way of thinking was the norm for many years until people started to belief that animals in captive situations were due a better life. This believe began to take hold and zoos had to start thinking about change. If the purpose of the zoo is to have people see animals (and be entertained) they needed to make the animals cages look pleasing for the public. If the public thinks the animals are not happy at the zoo, they would be less likely to visit that zoo again. Image is everything and the wrong image was being portrayed. Zoos started to build big elaborate cages, costing millions of dollars. In my opinion zoos have gone too far in that direction. Don’t misunderstand the issue! I believe that animals in zoos should have a nice home, but the economics of enclosures needs to be put into perspective. We are in a time where zoos have to take a lead roll in saving animals. Spending millions of dollars on caging is not going to save animals in the wild. What is the purpose of the zoo?
Speaking from the perspective of cat conservation, currently there is no viable way of reintroducing captive cats back into the wild. Second, there is very little habitat for these cats to be put back into. With that being the case, the zoos should be far more diligent in conservation and protection of animals in the wild. Are you thinking to yourselves, “that’s what I thought zoos did.”? I was at a meeting with many zoo officials in 1999. A director from a very large zoo said, ” It is very difficult to hit people over the head with a conservation message when they come to my zoo to be entertained”. Is the main purpose of the zoo; to entertain people? If that is the case, should the zoos change their name? Maybe the name “amusement park” would be more descriptive of the operation. I would have no problem with an organization saying that they were an amusement park for animals. People could make a decision if they wanted to support the facility or not. Honesty is the key and I see far too little of it in the animal world. If zoos want to be known as the leaders in conservation, most will have to change the way they conduct business. It is hard to justify spending millions of dollars for the caging of a few animals while allowing other animals to be vanquished in the wild because of lack of funding. What is the purpose of the zoo?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your local zoo! If education is the only effort being made for conservation, the zoo better be doing a tremendous job. Anyone with animals can educate, but do they inspire people to take an active roll in conservation? Do they put real money in the field? Some zoos try and say they do conservation because they have a captive breeding program! There is a need for a limited captive breeding program but the key word is limited. Again, no one can save wild animals in a zoo. Be real and practical and I hope your zoo will be honest with you. Our zoos are a great resource, but sometimes they need to be brought back to reality. What is the purpose of a zoo?
Why do some people hate zoos?
One of the obstacles we faced when opening the Cat Haven was the choosing of a name. To be quite honest, we did not want to use the word “zoo” in the name because of the negative connotations the word invokes in some people. We have found that some people (a larger number than some might think) will not visit animals at a place with the name “zoo” attached to it. Several reasons are behind this reaction and what follows are thoughts to the explanation why.
Zoos, for many years, were at best a menagerie where people could come see the wild animals in safety with no regard to the animals’ well being. Small areas for the animals mostly made of concrete, for easy cleaning, were the norm. The job of the zoo wasn’t to make the animals happy; it was to allow people the opportunity to see the wild beast (of myth and story) up close. The idea was to be able to have these animals close to home. That objective worked fine for many years until some in the public started to look at animals as living, thinking creatures. “If that animal was me, would I like to be in that situation?” We use a large word, anthropocentric, to describe this human way of looking at a situation. If the answer was “no” to the question above, people decided they didn’t want to visit the zoo. A very wise director of a zoo once said that ” A zoo should be therapy for people to come relax and enjoy the animals.” In time, the concrete cages, that zoos thought were state of the art, were not allowing people to relax and enjoy the animals. The cages were having an opposite effect and depressing people. Zoos needed to change and some did, some are still in the process and some might not ever change. More natural-type habitats were built to replace the old concrete bunkers and the terminology started to change to make people feel better about their zoo. Cages became natural habitat enclosures, zoos became zoological parks and gardens, wild animal parks, or conservation facilities. Zoos had to change for two reasons; first, the people that work at the zoos wanted to have better conditions for the animals they work with. Second, zoos also realized that if people were not happy with the condition the animals were kept in, they would not visit the zoo and revenue for the zoo would go down. As sad as it might sound, money still drives the majority of change.
To this day, many people still won’t visit zoos because they don’t like to see animals caged. Animals should be free. But that is not a reality of life in all situations. We work very hard to make our cats happy here at the Cat Haven. They become our ambassadors for their wild cousins. That needs to be the new job of the zoos. Captive animals need to stimulate people to action, to preserve habitat and save those animals they come to love so dearly. Today, zoos have made great strides toward improving the conditions of the past. Now they face another difficult problem.
Ligers & Tigons & Bengal Cats, Oh My!
Hybrids between wild and domestic cats, as we see in the now popular ‘bengal cat’ (a cross between a domestic cat and the tiny Asian leopard cat*) has been described as an attempt by pet owners to own something which is wild looking without being wild. It is also described as a chance to breed an exotic looking pet in captivity without risking the depletion of wild populations.
More unusual hybrids have been produced for curiosity and entertainment. Some people have deliberately crossbred tigers and lions to produce ‘tigons’ and ‘ligers’.
It is very difficult for conservationists to have anything good to say about the hybridization of wild cats. It is another form of extinction. Crossbreeding wild cats means losing the unique characteristics of each species. It has nothing to do with the preservation of animals which are fast disappearing from the wild.
Hybrids seem to satisfy people’s fascination with anything different or unusual. Like the developers of hybrid roses and white tigers, people take pleasure in the act of creating something new, unusual and potentially marketable.
To many this is a harmless and interesting activity. However, it is not without its criminals. Wild Asian leopard cats have been taken out of the wild, smuggled into this country and placed with prospective domestic cats for breeding, which they have killed.
One also wonders what happens to the offspring of successful pairings if they have inherited the instincts of the wild parent. Small wild cats belie their cute appearance. They have to be tough and aggressive to survive their low position on the food chain. One favorite zoo keeper saying goes “It’s the cute ‘n cuddly ones that’ll kill you”.
The same problems apply with wolf-domestic dog hybrids. No one disputes that domestic dogs can be dangerous. By introducing the wild instincts of the wolf, the most likely logical consequence is an increase in unpredictability. Nevertheless, it is this element of wildness which fascinates some people.
Some natural biological barriers do curb the successful hybridization of wild cats. For example tigons and ligers show reduced fertility rather like mules which are a cross between a horse and a donkey.
The production of hybrids has long been a valued practice in the agricultural world, among food crops and domestic livestock. It also brings economic benefits to cat breeders who hope to create a new level of excitement for pet owners. For conservationists, hybridization is a foreign concept and one not likely to benefit the preservation of wild populations.
* The bengal cat is not a cross between a domestic cat and a leopard – a wild cat which can weigh anywhere from 60 – 120lbs. The confusion arises because many people have heard of leopards, from nature documentaries on Africa, but few have heard about the tiny, spotted Asian leopard cat, the true wild founder of hybrid bengal cats.
Keeping a Wild Cat as a Pet
The idea of keeping a wild cat as a pet appeals to a great many people. This essay is about the realities and the ethics.
In some U.S. states exotic cats can be obtained through private breeders and dealers. In others the private ownership of cats is strictly regulated and is illegal without a license. As an example, residents of California must have two years of full-time experience working with wild cats at a licensed facility before they can apply for a license of their own. If an unlicensed person is caught with an exotic cat it will be confiscated by the State Fish and Game Department. Given that there are few rescue facilities with enough cage space to deal with a confiscated wild cat, the animal may be euthanized. This is just one of the unpleasant scenarios which can result from private ownership.
There is a reason why wild cats are not generally kept as pets. With the exception of the African wild cat, the forerunner of the modern housecat which took 4,000 years to adapt to living with humans, all other wild cats have not been domesticated. This means that they retain powerfu instincts which serve them well in the wild but which are extremely inappropriate in a domestic situation.
Cats typically become fiercely possessive over meat. In captivity, the same instinct leads to possessiveness over objects such as feeding bowls or pieces of clothing. With little warning they will defend their possession with breathtaking aggression and inflict deep puncture wounds if challenged. In the wild this behavior is a great advantage. It helps them survive. It is a shocking and dangerous characteristic in a pet.
One feature of wild cats, which comes as no surprise to domestic cat owners, is how ‘picky’ they are in their friendships. A cat which is perfectly amenable to one person can injure a stranger seconds later.
There is something in the beauty of wild cats which makes us forget our commonsense. People who would not approach and caress a strange dog are eager to extend their hand to a wild cat. The desire to touch is overwhelming. If we turn the tables for a moment and consider how we would feel if a stranger approached us in the street and began touching us, we can understand in an instant why a cat might react violently to being touched by someone unknown to them.
Although there are many stories of friendly exotic cats (and no doubt such cats exist) we would argue two points: first, that they are the exception and second, that even these are unpredictable. The fact that they have not hurt anyone does not mean that they will not at some time in the future. Approaching a friendly cat after using something as apparently harmless as perfume or scented hand soap can produce an unexpected behavior change.
Tripping accidentally in front of a ‘good’ cat has blown theories of time-honored friendships. The motion makes the victim appear vulnerable and triggers hunting instincts. One likely scenario is that the cat will seize the victim’s skull or neck so quickly it’s debatable whether the cat is even aware of what it is doing. Cats have intensely powerful jaws with teeth designed to inflict a killing bite…
Another consideration is that cute and appealing infant animals change when they become sexually mature. This is the age at which young adults establish their independence from their mother and siblings. Their urine becomes pungent and they begin scent marking in an effort to establish their own territory. Besides the unpleasant smell, it is very unnerving if, in the natural course of events, they begin to challenge their owner territorially. The nervous cat lover may reduce contact with the animal, leave it chained up or caged, and deny it the attention it has become accustomed to. Any animal abandoned to minimal care suffers. The formerly charismatic young cub becomes an adult derelict simply because it expressed a natural behavior.
By far the foulest outcome for an unwanted pet is that it is taken to a remote area and turned loose in the ignorant belief that it will be able ‘to fend for itself’. Animals which have imprinted on humans and are dependent upon them for food are helpless in the wild. They are likely to wander into someone’s yard looking for a handout, be mistaken for a wild renegade and shot.
People who work professionally with wild cats put in thousands of hours just to maintain their relationship with their animals. This helps to reduce the risk of injury but never fully eradicates it. Nor does this time include all the essential support activities such as obtaining and keeping adequate food supplies, cleaning, keeping up with paperwork and veterinary care. Unless you have a vocation, which you should pursue in a professional facility, aspiring wild animal owners should consider the possible consequences of what they are getting into. Owning a wild animal, even if done properly and with good reason, is a lifestyle, not a hobby.
This leads us to the ethical questions: why keep a wild animal as a pet? For many pet owners one acceptable answer is simply “Because I want to”. Exotic animals are just that – exotic, attractive, ‘cool’, unusual. They are fascinating and beautiful. Yet their physical beauty can not be separated from their essential nature. They are appealing because of their wildness. When such an animal is raised in captivity that wonderful characteristic is sadly diminished: the instincts are still there, but not the skills to survive in the wild. The animal is left in a state of limbo – a creature subject to all the natural behaviors it was born with yet without the right context to express them.
Few people are aware of the extraordinary damage which has been done to wildlife by the pet trade. For example, in the 1960’s, for every ten ocelot cubs collected from the wild and destined to be pets in the U.S. households of ‘ocelot lovers’, nine died en route in appalling conditions. Those ten, had they been left to live normal lifespans in their natural habitats, would have been responsible for producing well over 100 cubs. Therefore, for every cat kept as a pet, at least 100 were denied the opportunity to live. Few people realise that keeping a single wild animal could be so harmful to wild populations.
Having a relationship with a wild animal is undeniably one of the most enriching experiences a person can hope to have. The reason such an experience is so rare and so treasured is that housing wild animals in captivity presents major logistical and behavioral difficuties. With so few ‘Hallmark’ moments likely to occur, this essay argues that it is more realistic to aim for a relationship based on mutual respect. Respect means striving to save populations in their natural habitats, where they can be what they were born to be, rather than trying to keep one wild cat in the family room.
If you intend to pursue ownership of a wild cat, ask yourself why you are doing it.
White Tigers and Novelty
Stunning. Beautiful. The stuff of fantasies and fairy tales. These are all valid descriptions of the magical white tiger. There is no doubt that these impressive snowy creatures with ice-blue eyes arrest the attention of countless admirers. Their charm is such that few people ever question just what a white tiger really is.
Biologically speaking, the white color is caused by the expression of a rare recessive gene which occurs almost exclusively among bengal tigers, as opposed to other sub-species. White tigers are therefore not a distinct race, but a color variation from the standard orange bengal. Nor are they albinos: they have pigmentation in their eyes as well as in their stripes.
One of the reasons that white cubs are rare in the wild is that the color places them at a terrible disadvantage. Because they lack normal camoflage, which offers cubs some protection against predators, they rarely survive to adulthood. The white gene is removed before it can be passed on to another generation. This explains why there is no population of wild white tigers. Nevertheless, we see increasing numbers of white tigers in captivity. Why?
There was one white tiger, named Mohan, who was taken from India in the 1950’s. Most of the white tigers in captivity have been bred selectively from that one individual with the specific intent to produce white offspring. Because of the emphasis on producing white cubs, and the degree of inbreeding which was needed for the desired result, white tigers became known as likely candidates for congenital birth defects such as cleft palates.
Despite such problems the captive population of white tigers gradually increased to the point we know today. They are frequently seen in the entertainment industry and zoos. There is no doubt that white tigers are popular and that money can be made by selling white cubs.
White tigers are sometimes described as ‘endangered’ which can be misleading. While it is fair to say they are endangered because they are tigers, and all tigers are threatened with extinction, it is strange to imply that they are endangered because they are white. It is not that there are “not many left in the world” but, more realistically, of “not many which have been produced yet”. White tigers are naturally rare in the wild. In captivity they have been developed solely for their unusual coloration.
Can the production of white tigers in captivity be said to represent meaningful conservation or does it have more to do with the entertainment industry? Do white tigers help in some way to publicize and promote the preservation of their wild orange cousins?
These ethical questions ought to be considered. The negative side is that white tigers take up cage space which could be used for a critically endangered cat, such as the Sumatran tiger. On the other hand, by exciting the public and bringing more revenue to the parent facility, white tigers could assist conservation if such monies were tapped for cage building and range country conservation. To what extent this is being done, if at all, is anyone’s guess. Certainly it is not done explicitly.
Some may argue that any animal which excites interest and enhances the goodwill of people towards wild animals is justifiable. Others are disappointed that the novelty value of a white cat compromises the popularity of the still fabulous orange tiger. Still others regard it as a personal right to breed and sell whatever interests them.
Meanwhile the latest grim battles to save wild tigers from poachers are being fought far from the limelight. Whether you are pro-white tigers, or are left with doubts, perhaps everyone will agree on one thing: how regrettable it is that the heroic efforts of anti-poaching teams do not excite the same level of interest as the mere fact of a white tiger.
WILDLIFE REHABILITATION FACILITIES
Wildlife rehabilitation facilities provide care to injured, sick or orphaned animals with the goal of being able to return them to their natural habitat. Some animals are humanly euthanized if they are suffering and medical care would be fruitless. Other animals may recover but are still unable to survive in the wild and then live their life out at the rehab center or an education facility.
Each state has their own laws and requirements for wildlife rehabbers. Before a permit is issued, certain requirements must be met (such as facility inspections, exams, training, internships hours etc.). Most birds are protected by Federal Law and other wildlife is protected by State law. Rehabilitators who wish to care for birds also must get permits from the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
Wildlife rehabilitation facilities should be working with veterinarians to diagnose and treat the animals in their care. Rehabbers should have knowledge of nutritional requirements, behavior, dangers the animals can present to people, and caging requirements. On-going education is also needed.
ANIMAL BREEDING FACILITIES
There are different types of animal breeders. Examples: some breed pets (like dogs), some breed farm animals, some breed exotic animals. Breeding may be done to generate income or to protect a species. Breeding also may be done to produce desirable traits (cows that produce more milk, control the size of the animal etc.).
Ethical breeders are skilled in many areas and should be trained in:
– Animal husbandry
– Ovulation and breeding patterns
– Artificial insemination
– Medical procedure and should have a Veterinarian to advise. (vaccinations, neutering, emergency
care, birthing care, etc.)
– Record keeping- Genealogy-
– Good relations with zoos, farms etc. to make sure animals are being ethically placed.
When people visit the Cat Haven, many of them think that we (and zoos) are taking cats out of the wild and placing them in our facility. This seldom happens, especially when dealing with species that are struggling for survival in the wild. If an exotic cat is orphaned or injured in the wild, intervention can be taken to save these animals. We do not capture healthy cats from the wild an place them into a captive situation. All of the cats at the Cat Haven were born in a captive situation with exception of our Bobcats (Whirlpool and Maytag) who were found orphaned in the wild.
Wild cats live with their mothers for 18 months to 2 years before moving on to find their own territory. Mothers teach the cubs how to hunt, what to hunt and how to stay safe. Cats that have spent their early years in a captive situation do not have the skills to be able to survive in the wild. Though it has been attempted, there has been very little success with re-wilding cats like this.
Like any industry, there are ethical breeders and some that are not so ethical. Strict record keeping is vital to ensure that animals are not inbred. For each specie of cat in captivity, a “stud book” is maintained so that genealogies can be traced.
ANIMAL TRAINING FACILITIES
Animal trainers teach animals to respond to commands that result in a specific behavior. Some trainers work with domestic animals and others work with wild animals. Animals are trained for various reasons: companions, helpers, protection, detection and entertainment to name a few.
As in any business, there are ethical trainers and a few that treat animals badly. When training wild animals, often the natural behaviors of the animal are considered and animals are then taught to respond to a command (such as “sit”, “up”, “target” etc.) .
Most animal trainers today work to train their animals with “positive reinforcement” methods. (this might be a food reward, a kind word, a gentle stroke etc.)
Animals that are used in the entertainment industry are monitored by the American Humane Association. Dogs, cats, horses, bird, marine animals and certain species of wild animals are often trained and used in the entertainment industry.
At the Cat Haven, several of our cats have been filmed and photographed for various reasons. Our Cheetahs are trained with several basic commands (“sit”, “up”, “walk”, “target” “easy” “stay” “down”) They do not do “tricks” and are only encouraged with a food reward to do normal behaviors. Our Cheetahs and several other cats are also comfortable being education ambassadors at schools and other functions. If our cats exhibit behavior that lets us know they are uncomfortable (on a collar and leash, crating, riding in a vehicle), they no longer participate in our education programs.
EDUCATION AND CONSERVATION CENTERS
Project Survival’s Cat Haven is an education and conservation center. Part of our Mission Statement says: “It (the Cat Haven) specializes in education and is engaged in both captive and range country conservation.”
Our cats are ambassadors for education and help to get people interested and excited about helping conservation projects in the wild.
Many people are curious about wildlife and love the chance to see these animals in person. Education/Conservation facilities offer the chance to see the animals and learn more about wildlife. This helps people understand that everyone plays an important in preserving this planet that we all share.
Some of our cats were orphaned in the wild or were “re-homed” with us from other facilities. We provide excellent homes for all of our cats but our focus is to educate people about the plight of endangered cat species, and to raise funds for the conservation projects in the wild. Working to mitigate problems between cats and people in the wild, these projects are vital to protecting and conserving these beautiful animals.
Animal education can include: Docent lead tours, classes in a classroom setting, speaking and power point presentations at events and schools, in-house classes, hosting guest speakers who are currently working in the field with endangered species etc. All employees should be educated and be able to answer questions about how to help get involved with conservation.