Several people, after reading my article on the epidemic of animal selfies, asserted that the “epidemic” wasn’t really an “epidemic” the way I portrayed it to be. So I thought I’d put together a little something in regard to the cub petting industry, which is based not simply on petting the animals, but also on the premise of taking photographs with those cubs (and which I cited in my selfie article)
Some places, like T.I.G.E.R.S., very carefully strategize and word their choices for photographs as by the group, meaning that each person in a group must pay to have a photograph, not of themselves with their cub, but of the entire group of paying customers with their cubs. Other places, often no more than private backyard zoos, give you the chance to hold and pose with cubs for just $20. Each place has its own guidelines and options and costs. I will post links to them so that you can see for yourself.
The only regulations in regard to cub petting in the US are provided by the USDA. They are meager, and read as follows:
Cubs cannot be handled before 8 weeks of age, because 8 weeks is the earliest point at which cubs can receive vaccinations. But the USDA defines a ‘juvenile big cat’ as being any cub over the age of 12 weeks and DOES NOT permit the public contact with cubs over the age of 12 weeks. Although the USDA laws should override any state laws, some states like Florida ignore the USDA regulations in favor of making their own. In Florida (where a number of cub petting operations exist) the public is permitted to handle cubs under the weight limit of 25lbs. This roughly translates to 12 weeks of age for the average big cat cub. However, Florida DOES NOT regulate the handling of cubs UNDER 25lbs, no matter how young they are.
So what does all of this mean?
Here is a list of establishments that came up when I plugged in the search perimeters of “where can I hold a baby tiger?” into Google. Many of these are IN THE UNITED STATES.
Black Jaguar White Tiger*
Dade City Wild Things
Chestatee Wildlife Preserve & Zoo
The Institute for Greatly Endangers and Rare Species
Zoological Wildlife Foundation
Brown’s Oakridge Zoo
Tim Stark Tiger Baby Playtime
Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park
Puerto Vallarta Zoo (this link goes to Trip Advisor, as their website is ‘under construction’)
Zootastic Park of Lake Norman
McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary
Maple Lane Wildlife Farm
Tuttle’s Interactive Exotic Tiger Safari Zoological Park
Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge
Big Cat Encounters-Karl Mitchell
Natural Bridge Zoo*
Virginia Safari Park*
Gulf Breeze Zoo*
*Black Jaguar White Tiger does not advertise public visitations/pay to play (I’m being completely fair to them by pointing this out) but their name did come up near the top of my feed, revealing that they do top the list of responses of “holding baby tigers”. *The last three parks on the list are all owned by Karl Mogenson/his family.
Now, according to the USDA, cubs can only be handled by the public for one month of their lives. Most of these sites do not list a specific ‘season’ for cub petting, it appears to be a service available year round. Presuming that the operators possess more than just one cub at a time, I went with estimating them to have 5 cubs. Some will have more available, some will have less.
But, supposing they all have 5 cubs available to the public, year round, and supposing that they all follow USDA guidelines (as many insist they do) each operator will go through about 60 cubs a year. There are 18 operators on the list who offer cub petting publicly. So every year approximately 1,080 cubs are bred and handled by the public through these establishments. Minimum. Supposedly ‘for conservation’. Then you look at a group like T.I.G.E.R.S. which has been in operation since 1983, and even if they had only five cubs available to the public at a time, T.I.G.E.R.S. alone has gone through 1,980 cubs since it was founded.
I say “gone through” because, well, where are these cubs now? That, is the million dollar question.
Because the cub petting industry is regulated by only a few flimsy sentences, which can be routinely ignored without any notable consequence, the operators who provide cub petting services are in no way required to document where those cubs come from, or where they go when their 4 week shelf life is up. Likewise, zoos are not obligated to make public where their surplus animals disappear to.
And this is just a small sampling of the available venues for direct interaction with big cat cubs. You could double or triple the numbers I’ve listed. We just don’t know, because no one is paying attention to how severe a problem this is. Not at the moment.
Serio isn’t entirely off the hook for this article’s purposes, either. In the cases of groups like Black Jaguar White Tiger, the fates of the cubs so adoringly ooed and ahhed over on social media sites becomes even more muddled. While BJWT is not “open” to the public, they maintain a continuous rotation of visiting celebrities who are all allowed to play with and take photos with their seemingly endless supply of cubs. And Every. Single. Photo. Or. Video. he posts of himself holding baby big cats, or a guest holding baby big cats has commenters who say ‘I want one!’ or ‘How can I do this???’ or ‘You’re so amazing, I want to do this!’
I spent several hours slowly plowing through BJWT’s Instagram feed–so popular with his nearly 5 million followers–making lists of cubs by name, by ‘pride’, and then by where they are now. Needless to say, I had a difficult time tracking down just how many cubs BJWT has had in its possession, and how many it still has in its possession as adults.
Serio himself claims to have personally bottle fed over 90 big cat cubs. I was able to come up with roughly 87 named cubs. Breaking that down over the three years that BJWT has been in existence (according to Serio) that’s roughly 7 new cubs appearing every four months. I say ‘roughly’ because Serio has a habit of changing cubs’ names, as well as nicknaming them with multiple nicknames. Thus, it took quite a bit of sorting to assure I wasn’t accidentally counting the same cats twice.
Of the 87 cubs I counted, 6 can be confirmed as deceased. The causes of death, however, are not nearly as easy to pin down.
Karma is well documented as having ingested a piece of wood (something that could happen accidentally, in extreme fairness)
Tatiana and Keiko both supposedly died of ‘collapsed lungs’ both incidents were attributed by Serio to ‘genetic defects’.
Onix/Onyx died–again, according to Serio–of a ‘brain aneurysm’ which he also blamed on inbreeding.
Labai died of what Serio described as ‘his intestines scratching his colon’ something Serio claims the cub suffered from with his prior owners due to improper feeding. Strangely, all of the pictures portraying Labai as a young cub were taken at BJWT and no mention of prior intestinal issues was ever made.
Tibet is dead. That is all, I could find nothing else about him.
Itzamna ‘didn’t make it’ which isn’t uncommon because ‘all ligers are born with genetic issues’.
Let me remind you that even though Serio has lost so many cubs to “genetic” problems, he doesn’t believe in neutering or spaying because he wants to use his ‘kids’ to repopulate the wild.
Of the remaining 81 cubs, 25 have “gone dark” and simply disappeared from social media. This doesn’t mean that anything has happened to them. I have no proof that anything happened, and I’m not asserting that something did happened.
I’m simply stating that we don’t know where these cubs are now, because there is no accountability in taking thousands of photos and videos of people holding your big cat cubs and posting them to social media. Especially when you aren’t a GFAS accredited sanctuary, and have no oversight. And before someone comments, I know that Serio claims to have rescued all of the cubs in his care, and that he insists he’s never bred them.
The fact is, he doesn’t have to breed his cubs, because he buys them from breeders all over Mexico, which does nothing but support breeding them for profit.
There are other issues with Serio’s accountability, but this article isn’t the place to go into them. I listed the cubs here because he uses them to further the cub petting industry. No matter what Serio says he’s doing, what his actions show him to be, is someone who enjoys coddling with captive big cats, and who will allow his chosen guests to do the same thing. Someone who relishes his own celebrity for the act of cuddling with captive big cats.
The point is, taking selfies, or regular photographs or videos, snaps, vines–taking any form of media with big cat cubs is a million dollar business. It is an epidemic, and it is continuing to spread like a plague.
And until the public stops oohing and ahhing and starts demanding accountability, nothing is ever going to change.
Feature Image Taken From Sriracha Tiger Zoo in Thailand, one more place that capitalizes on photos with captive big cats.
Author: Artemis Grey