With the events currently taking place at the Missouri State Fair in regard to the tigers being exhibited there, the ICARUS team felt that it would be a good idea to address a few things relating to the matter. During this investigation there have been varying opinions as to the condition and treatment of the tigers involved. The USDA has received hundreds (at minimum, full numbers have not been disclosed) of complaints about the tigers, but at the same time the trainers of the big cats claim they are well cared for, and numerous attendees of the show, have claimed that the cats look fine, and seem to love their handlers. So, how does a member of the public decide whether or not an exotic animal being used in a show like this is, or is not, suffering from abuse or mistreatment?
Firstly, don’t be afraid to do research. Google can be a very good source of information, so long as you are careful to ‘check your sources’. Don’t take one webpage and use it singularly, check out a number of pages or results. If you find numerous pages stating the same problems, then likely, there are legitimate issues. The best thing to do if you have questions in regard to a certain group, or animal’s condition is to take a few moments on your smart phone to research the subject. This could be as simple as a google image search for ‘healthy elephant’ You can then look at the resulting photographs, while looking at the elephant standing in front of you. It will, at the least, give you a basic idea of whether whatever you’re seeing that seems strange is, in fact strange, or if you’re finding dozens of different animals which all look similar. In the same vein, it’s often fairly easy to learn whether or not specific shows or animal trainers have a history of violations or issues by simply Googling their name. Likewise, if the questionable trainer or owners claim to be aiding with conservation by owning the animals, a quick Google search can counter that. Many times trainers will claim to be aiding in the conservation of white tigers, or ligers when, in fact, there has never been a wild population of white tigers, or ligers. The truth is that white tigers are a genetic mutation achieved through extreme inbreeding (and for every white tiger you see, dozens of normal colored tiger cubs, or grossly deformed white tiger cubs have been destroyed) and ligers are created by the forced crossbreeding of a lion and a tiger, which, again, often results in genetic maladies and deformities, and a very shortened lifespan for the cats.
Do not look at the subject of captive wild animal welfare in terms of ‘I’m just a member of the public and they’re the experts’. It’s not the mindset you’d have if you were going to a car dealership to buy a car, is it? You would educate yourself on the car you wanted and its features. It’s not the mindset you would have when buying a house, or booking a vacation, either. Instead, you’d research the housing market or the area you’re planning to go on vacation. Most people aren’t professionals at everything they do. You don’t need to have decades of experience in order to have a basic understanding of situations. So if you feel that something is amiss in a situation involving captive exotic animals, but the owners/trainers assure you that everything is fine, don’t feel like you have no choice but to accept their answers.
Remember this very important fact when it comes to traveling shows that involve captive exotic animals: The trainers for these shows are actors. They might have a experience with the animals involved, and they might have raised those animals from adolescence, but they are, first and foremost, actors. And the show is just that. A show. Their number one priority is to make money from people like you who are paying to watch, just as a television show’s number on priority is viewership. Keep in mind the times you’ve seen a movie wherein the onscreen chemistry between two actors was electric, but long after the blockbuster was done with, the public discovered that in real life the two actors absolutely hated each other, and nothing of the ‘electric chemistry’ that seemed to exist on screen, actually existed at all. It was simply an illusion created by two very talented actors. So the truth is, these trainers might not care about the animals in their show at all. Maybe they do, but it’s completely possible that they are simply putting on an act.
Another vital thing to consider is the fact that the animals in these shows do not have a choice in where they are and what’s being done to them. Many times, the public sees these animals ‘showing affection’ to their handlers, and they take those actions at face value. What bears remembering is the fact that from the time these animals enter the ‘arena’ for a show, to the time they exit it, they are performing and following commands from their trainers. Therefore, any ‘show of affection’ is likely nothing more than yet one more subtle trick performed for the audience. People often find such a suggestion offensive, but when one objectively looks at the fact that the animals are wholly dependent on their trainers for food, shelter and any other need, and that they’ve been trained to respond to commands – sometimes through violence – then it seems much more reasonable to think that their ‘affection’ might simply be trained response. If a human child is kidnapped and raised by someone other than their parents, they’re still considered prisoners by the public. They often remain with their abusers, even if they’re suffering, and will lie to authorities and tell them that their abusers are kind and caring. We understand innately that in the case of human children, this is a direct result of the abuse they’ve suffered during their captivity, but for some reason, much of the public does not make the same connection in the case of captive wild animals.
But why should you believe groups like ICARUS instead of the trainers and exhibitors of these captive exotic animals? What makes us qualified to assert that the animals in these situations might be suffering? The truth is, only you can decide who to believe. All we can do is present you with scientific facts.
However, some things to consider in situations like the one out at the Missouri State Fair, or any similar situation include:
Is the person, or persons in charge of the animals in question using the animals to make money?
Does their business depend directly on exhibiting the animals?
If an institution calls itself a sanctuary, do they allow the public to have direct contact with the animals, holding and playing with them in exchange for either monetary donation, or publicity?
Does the person or persons in charge of the animals claim that they are breeding and exhibiting them to ‘promote conservation’?
Does the person or persons in charge of the animals claim to have a special bond with them? Do they claim that the animals perform because they want to? And that the animals enjoy performing?
In the case of groups who are opposed to captive exotic animals, do the members act openly hostile?
Do they engage in violence, and reckless acts, like opening cages and setting animals free?
Do they promote violence in general?
If the answer to any of these questions is Yes, then there is cause for concern. Justifying the exploitation of captive exotic animals is a clear sign that those doing the exploiting do not feel like exploitation is wrong if the ‘right’ people are doing it. And in contrast, if those who do not believe in animal exploitation endorse or call for violence agains their opponents, then they are more interested in making a political statement than they are in the welfare of the animals.
Responsible animal advocates, like the members of team ICARUS, will calmly state why they are opposed to the exploitation of animals, and will offer supporting facts. They will be willing to work with others to solve the problem, and will never suggest that violence or slandering is the answer. We might vehemently disagree with the actions of trainers and private owners, but we will never condone harming or otherwise attacking those persons. The way to create change is through outreach and the spread of information. We don’t want the public to agree with us because they believe what we’re saying, we want them to believe in us and what we’re doing because it’s the right thing for the animals.
There is no function for the public performance of a captive exotic animal other than for human entertainment. There is no need for them to ‘earn their keep’ because there is no reason for them to be ‘kept’ at all. The only thing that requires a wild animal to be held captive is for purposes of exploitation. This is why the ICARUS team strongly disagrees with the practice of allowing the public to have direct contact with cubs or adult animals – even by well meaning sanctuaries. Such activities cross the line into exploitation.
We understand the need for sanctuaries to support themselves, and public tours which do not involve touching the animals are a great way to do that. There are many ways for people to support the protection of captive wild animals, that doesn’t involve exploiting them, you just have to look. In fact, GFAS accredited sanctuaries must abide by strict regulations in regard to how their animals are kept or handled.
For more information about captive exotic animal and how to protect them, check out the Facebook page of ICARUS for links to reputable sanctuaries and rescue organization. And remember you have the power to educate yourself, make informed decisions, and help animals in need.
Author: Artemis Grey