Tigers Are Not Pets

23:13 Thu 18 Sep 2008. Updated: 17:44 28 Jan 2009
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When I was quite young, I went to see Siberian tigers at the Bronx Zoo. My memories of this are vague in terms of specifics, but I suspect that I saw at least one cub, and I do know that I was strongly affected by seeing them. I’ve always loved all kinds of cats, have had a soft spot for tigers, and, well, blue-eyed tigers are just too much to resist.

Even at a young age, however, I was quite aware that they were not domestic animals.

About ten years later, I saw tigers at a state circus in Russia. This was an entirely different experience, and I found it soul-crushingly depressing. The cats were so obviously listless and dispirited and unhappy—and it really hurt to see them like that, made worse by the fact that they had to go through the motions of whatever routines the circus had trained them for. I’m not claiming they were being terribly mistreated—I have no way of knowing—but it was clear that they were unhappy and probably unhealthy.

In both cases, my response was intense, and that intensity seems to lurk somewhere whenever I see or read about tigers. To be honest, I’ve recently tried to avoid reading about them in the news because it tends to be bad, since their habitats are being destroyed and there are fewer and fewer of them left in the wild.

Nevertheless, I read “A Tiger’s Tale”, a report on how tigers are popular as “pets” in Texas. It’s heartbreaking, because (duh) they’re not suited to being pets, so what happens is that people get them when they’re cubs and then abandon them.

The commoditization of animals in general is disturbing. But with domesticated animals, or animals that can function as pets as adults, at least it’s possible for an owner to truly care about, and take care of, the animals. People buy pets because that’s how people acquire more or less anything in a capitalist economy, and while that feeds greed that can cause significant suffering, at least some proportion of the animals end up in relatively good places.

For tigers, and other big cats, that simply cannot happen. Private individuals can manage tiger cubs, sure, but later? Seven hundred pounds (over three hundred kilos) of hungry, quick, agile predator? It’s just not going to work. That makes these animals not merely commodities, but disposable commodities.

The amazing stupidity and cruelty of it is staggering. If I could understand that they were far from pets when I was six (or younger), why isn’t that clear to adults? Is it pure wishful thinking, the idea that if you simply shell out enough money, you can have whatever you want—ignoring facts of nature? Is it a complete lack of regard for the animals as living creatures? Is it an utter lack of thinking it through either practically or morally?

I don’t have suggestions, really, because in a sense they’re the same old thing: stop exploiting the habitats the tigers live in, stop exploiting the people around those habitats so that they’re driven to do whatever they can to make a living; stop extending the reach of money without concomitant controls; let local communities control their own destinies. And more besides. It’s not that there are no answers, it’s that I don’t know how to get to there from here. And in the meantime, thinking about that story just hurts.

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