How are Rich People Able to Buy Exotic Pets Like Tigers?

Amikkik asks: How do celebrities buy exotic pets like a tiger like Mike Tyson has? How is that legal?

As you may or may not know, there are around twice as many tigers in the United States, around 5,000-10,000, as there are in the wild in the rest of the world, with the vast majority of those big cats belonging not to zoos, but private owners who keep them as pets. So how are people legally able to acquire these animals?

To begin with, at the federal level, there are no real regulations on the sale of these particular exotic animals outside of the Captive Wild Animal Safety Act of 2003, which was put in place to try to quell the rise in popularity of people purchasing big cats. However, this is extremely limited in scope, mostly just banning, outside of certain exceptions, transporting them across state lines. That said, as most of these big cats are bred locally in the U.S., and, particularly with cubs, it’s not difficult to transport them across state lines without getting caught, this has proved a minimal hurdle in acquiring such an animal. Further, given there is no federal registry or the like of who has these animals, it likewise makes it relatively easy to flout the rules.

On that note, there are a mishmash of laws at the state level concerning tiger and other exotic animal ownership, but these are often not strictly enforced, and in some cases there are no rules at all. For example, if you happen to live in Nevada, Alabama, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and South Carolina you’ll find you can just go buy one without telling anyone- no permit or license required, outside of the fact that North Carolina allows counties to have their own rules here, and Wisconsin requires you get a permit if you’re bringing the animal in from another state, which as noted is mostly illegal outside of some exceptions. Additionally, there are at least a dozen more states where buying an exotic pet like a lion or baboon requires simply filling out a bit of paperwork and paying a small permit fee.

On top of that, going back to states where owning something like a tiger is illegal, there’s a loophole- a license from US Department of Agriculture to display the animal. Specifically, most anyone can classify themselves as an “exhibitor” under the USDA’s guidelines, which to quote them state, “Licensed exhibitors include circuses, zoos, educational displays, petting farms/zoos, animal acts, wildlife parks, marine mammal parks, and some sanctuaries.”

The USDA offers no further clarification on what exactly it constitutes, say an “educational display”, leaving it up to interpretation. So, for example, a person could, in theory, obtain a license, buy a tiger and then put it in a cage with a printout of the Wikipedia page for that breed of tiger next to it and then occasionally let friends and family see their little educational exhibit. This would not only be perfectly legal, but in some cases may even allow an especially enterprising individual to potentially write the cost of the tiger off in their taxes if done right.

As to the process to get that USDA license, the fees are only $10 to apply and then around $30-$300 per year after that, varying based how many animals and type you want to have. Beyond that, to qualify you just have to show you have the minimum required facilities required by the USDA. Unfortunately for the tigers, this USDA minimum is not anywhere close to the level considered needed by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries nor the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Also much to the chagrin of animal rights activists, after you get the license, the government is notoriously lax when it comes to regulating the facilities of licensed exhibitors, reportedly only checking in around once per year typically, if at all. On top of that, as it is the job of the owner of the animals to keep a record of what animals they have for the USDA to inspect when they do come out, it’s not terribly difficult to hide the fact that you might have more animals than you’re showing them, if you think you don’t have the minimum required facilities for a given animal.

Furthermore, even in cases where facilities are found to fall below these standards, the more exotic animals are rarely confiscated because, to put it simply, there’s often nowhere for them to go, with better equipped sanctuaries and zoos already overrun thanks to many owners buying a cute little easy to manage tiger cub, only to quickly find out they bit off more than they could chew when the tiger potentially reaches 500-800 lbs and is up to 12 feet long from tip to tip…

Naturally, once reality of taking care of an adult tiger hits, a lot of owners place a rather desperate call to sanctuaries and zoos to see if someone will take the animal. If unable to find a home, sadly, simply putting the animals down isn’t uncommon.

Factor in fairly minor fines and repercussions for being caught violating the USDA’s rules here and there’s little incentive for a person with tiger buying money to care about potentially incurring the wrath of the laws, even sometimes the state level ones.

Moving away from the US for a moment, in many other parts of the world the ownership and sale of exotic creatures is regulated a little more strictly, in the extreme in countries like Austria where owning a tiger is outright banned outside of zoos and sanctuaries. For most countries, however, it is still allowed, usually requiring the purchase of a license or permit, though generally with more regulations to actually get the license.

For example, in the UK, it’s actually perfectly legal to own a tiger, but the laws surrounding the ownership of exotic animals are a little more strict and more heavily enforced thanks to the Dangerous Wild Animal Act 1976. This stipulates that people must buy an annual license and must adhere to strict guidelines and regular inspections, as well as carry liability insurance for the animal in case it runs amok.

As an aside, we’d like to note that the Dangerous Wild Animal Act of 1976 is quite the read for anyone who’s interested and it notes, amongst other things, that Britons are free to keep aardwolves (a bit like a small hyena, but fascinatingly eats bugs mostly), otters, and seals as pets without a permit.

In any event, given the slightly more strict rules and tracking, it is known that in the UK exotic pets kept legally include 300 American bison (some of the most dangerous creatures in the world to humans statistically, which has hindered efforts towards their mass domestication for agriculture), over 500 monkeys, 250 poisonous snakes, 50 crocodiles, 2,000 ostriches, and approximately 150 big cats, mostly leopards. As to why leopards are so popular, apparently these are often used to interbreed with domestic cats- the idea being to create new, smaller and slightly more domesticated versions of the animals to sell as pets.

Moving on to actually purchasing the creatures, up until 2014 in Britain, the one stop shop for an exotic pet was Harrods’ Pet Kingdom in London. Prior to the introduction of the Endangered Species Act 1976 the Pet Kingdom sold nearly every kind of animal requested, and even after had quite the variety, at its peak containing a stock on hand that rivaled that of the London Zoo. Wealthy Britons were known to be able to walk into Harrods’ and casually buy three scarves and a crocodile, with the store having a reputation for inscrutable standards of service- a fact epitomised by the story, whether true or not is hard to determine, of the time King Zog of Albania called to inquire about buying an elephant. Rather than think this might be a prank call, the story goes that the concierge answering the phone simply responded without missing a beat, “African or Indian, sir?”

In more modern times, as we can attest, a quick and very basic Google search is about all you need to do to find a slew of outlets willing to sell you a tiger or many other such exotics animals, in some places, like certain states of the U.S., even locally.

This all brings us around to the cost of acquiring said tiger. It turns out you don’t need to be rich at all. If you’d like an adult tiger, this can sometimes be acquired for free from an owner trying to get rid of theirs.  As for cubs, depending on exact type, you can usually find one for in the realm of $1000 to $3000, though they can be more expensive for some of the most prized. For example, an albino tiger cub can cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars each. A further thing to consider on that one is that those albino tigers are so incredibly inbred at this point that they come with massive health care costs.

This brings us to the first of the expensive costs of owning a tiger- healthcare.  As you can imagine, there are only a small percentage of vets willing and skilled enough to attend a tiger, and they don’t exactly offer their services on the animals cheap, typically. Further, in some cases, finding such a vet requires actually transporting the tiger long distances, which is a bit more of a process than simply throwing said animal in the back of your car.

In fact, even if you can train your tiger to put up with this (and you can manage to fit it in) and not be a risk to your driving (or just you in general if they get antsy in cars), most vets will not accept a tiger for care uncaged. Thus, for transport, it’s generally recommended you purchase or construct a rather large, extremely sturdy cage, which then can be placed in the back of a truck or on a trailer to be towed.

Next up we have food. A full grown tiger will need in the ballpark of 15 lbs (7 kg) of meat per day, plus supplemental nutrients as the horse and cow meat many owners use doesn’t provide the diverse diet the animals need.

That said, some intrepid individuals have found ways around this rather large expenditure. For example, the co-author of this piece actually grew up near a woman in Washington State who owned a pet black panther, a lion, a tiger, a cougar she kept in her house, and an absolutely massive wolf- the only one of her animals guests were not allowed to pet, or even go near at all, which was completely understandable when watching the animal watch you as you walked within its eyesight. What it had on its mind was not subtle… This woman of fairly simple means was easily able to supply the food needed for all her animals via road kill, mostly deer, she either collected herself or was brought to her house by road care workers. She would typically throw a deer or two in for the animals to chow down on per week, and otherwise made sure to stay out of the cage if it had been a few days since they’d eaten.

Of course, it’s one thing to have enough food, a whole other thing entirely to have enough space to humanely keep the animals. For reference here, a typical male tiger naturally has a range of around 40 square miles (about 100 square kilometers), whereas the females tend to like around 7 square miles (about 18 square kilometers). Few have that kind of land, but even a small acreage is tricky because tigers are notoriously good at escaping from even tall fences, leading to many just throwing them in small cages to make sure they stay put and for general safety.

It’s at this point we should note that tigers never stop seeing humans as prey, even the humans who raise them from their earliest life. For example, one Cindy Gamble of Minnesota who had cared for her tigers, among many other dangerous animals, for over a decade found her life abruptly ended when, for whatever reason, her 500 lb pet Bengal tiger decided to go ahead and kill her in 2006.

In yet another case, this one in 2003, a 10 year old boy, Clayton James Eller, was shoveling snow when he got a little too close to his aunt and uncle’s tiger cage, which had a small opening under the chain link fence so that their dog could go in and play with the tiger. On that note, by all accounts up to that point, the tiger in question had always been extremely friendly to humans, including Clayton, and animals, such as their dog. Tragically for the boy and his family, that particular day for whatever reason the 400 pound animal decided to reach under the fence, grab Clayton and pull him in and precede to maul him. The boy’s uncle, James, almost immediately rushed into the cage and with all his strength tried to get the the Tiger off the boy and to stop the attack, but was unsuccesful. He then ran and got his gun and shot the tiger dead. Sadly, Clayton didn’t survive the ordeal.

Perhaps the most famous case of such privately owned animals running amok is the Zanesville Zoo Massacre which occurred in Ohio in 2011. In this case, one Terry Thompson decided to set loose the majority of his little personal zoo, with the animals released comprising two wolves, one macaque monkey, one baboon, six black bears, three mountain lions, two grizzly bears, three cougars and a whopping 17 lions (nine male, eight female), and 18 absolutely massive Bengal tigers…

When police first got a call of a then unknown number of escaped animals at Thompson’s place and no sign of Thompson, they assumed perhaps he’d finally been killed by one of his animals. In years leading up to the event, they’d been trying to get the animals taken away from Thompson, particularly after he did a stint in jail and was deemed by authorities as a bit unstable, even speculated to have been schizophrenic. Things didn’t improve when his debts mounted and his wife left him. However, as he was breaking no laws, they couldn’t get the dangerous animals taken away.

When the police arrived on the scene, they found Thompson had shot himself at some point after setting his animals free, leaving them with a very dangerous situation they were ill equipped to deal with.

To get an idea of what it was like on hand, we have an account from one of Thompson’s neighbors, Sam Kopchak, who was the first to notice the issue when his horses started freaking out. Upon investigating, he saw a slew of animals observing his horses. He notes, “I’m telling you, the lion is bad enough, and the lioness is bad enough, and the wolf is bad, and the bear, but…don’t be around the tiger. The tigers are actually bigger than the lions if they’re fully grown. He started snarling, and went after the horses.”

Unable to safely corral the dozens of dangerous animals running wild in the concentrated area, and with no time to call in professionals and people with tranquilizers without potentially letting some of the animals escape into the night, the police ended up having to kill all of them outside of the few that the animals themselves had already killed in the interim. This massacre was much to the devastation of many called to kill the poor animals, and was considered even more tragic in the case of the 18 Bengal tigers as there are only a few thousand of those left in the wild in the world and an unknown number in captivity.

As you might imagine, this event saw many states, including Ohio, put in place stricter rules about owning such animals though, as often lamented by animal rights activists, having rules and anyone actually bothering to enforce them are two different things, let alone the loopholes that exist.

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