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$20 to pet a tiger - is that a fair price?

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$20 to pet a tiger – what a deal! That’s what Jungle Habitat’s booth at the Florida State Fair was hawking last week. As many as six people could cram into their little booth while a solitary, lethargic 4-month-old tiger cub named Takara was hoisted out of a tiny cage, propped up like a stuffed animal, and positioned for a photo with those anxious to pay the price.

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Is that a fair price to pay? To almost 3,000 people who sent nearly 34,000 letters of complaint to authorities, it's outrageous. Like so many other cubs bred and used this way, they feel Takara is paying with her life. In the minds of many, it's legalized animal abuse.

Located right in the middle of the fair’s midway, Takara and a lynx were on display. They endured nonstop noise from crowds and music, next to the fumes of a meat smoker. One eye witness shared, “I witnessed this myself and was disgusted. The man taking the pictures couldn't have been more on something with his blood shot eyes trying to say the cat had just eaten."

"I am ashamed of Florida the Florida state grounds. The macaws they had were in such poor shape an oversized heater the hurt kangaroo. The sedated fox. Why wasn't this shut down. It was so very obvious this was abuse. It was blatant. All the animal exhibit were in poor care. Even the prized rabbits with no water. In this day and age animals have rights we have laws and the Florida fairground should have done diligence. Shameful.(sic)”

What was billed as the thrill of a lifetime, in reality was a horror of a lifetime, according to another eyewitness who related her experience. “ The man pulled up a chair, shook the tiger cub's face and clapped in an attempt to wake her up. She was extremely lethargic and only ‘woke up’ when she was being dragged out of the dog carrier and later on when the man grabbed her front legs to show us her claws."

"She smelt strongly of urine and parts of her fur were wet. There was a pile of diarrhea near her rubber toy. The young man went inside to ‘play’ with the lynx, which included pulling its legs and moving it around. He also roughly picked it up to put it on top of its den and he kissed its face.”

“I was shocked and disturbed by what I saw as I've never seen animals treated like this. It wasn't just cats either, there were alligators in iron cages, a giraffe in a tent with farm animals, bear wrestling shows, sea lion shows... I honestly don't understand how people can call this entertainment.”

A veterinary technician attending the exhibit was able to get within inches of Takara to evaluate her eyes and behavior. She shared with Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit rescue facility in Tampa, that it was her professional opinion Takara had been drugged. She noted that, when the handler pulled Takara out of the dog carrier and placed her on top of it for the ‘pet and play’ session, she barely opened her eyes. Even when she was poked and prodded so the handler could show off her teeth and claws, Takara still appeared very groggy (see slideshow photos).

According to Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, the Florida State Fair General Manager Charles Pesano promised in 2005 that the fair would discontinue the exhibition of big cats. He now states that he is “not an expert on animal care and must rely on state and federal inspectors to determine if the animal exhibit is in compliance.”

When concerned citizens reached out to Big Cat Rescue to complain about the exhibit, the sanctuary contacted fair management. The fair, in turn, called the Florida Wildlife Commission to have the exhibit inspected. FWC and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) investigators made an unannounced, plain clothes inspection of this exhibit on February 10, 2014. According to the FWC, “these investigators determined that the owner, Mr. Patrick Clancy of Jungle Habitat, was appropriately licensed to conduct the exhibition of the wildlife in his possession. They reviewed his records including the Official Certificate of Veterinarian Inspection, insurance, and Captive Wildlife Import Permit and found no discrepancies. The FWC Investigator then made contact with the cub to ascertain its weight and conduct a visual inspection of the cub. The cub weighed less than 35 pounds, was alert, appeared well adjusted to public contact, and had no apparent deformities or external parasites. No violations were found with regard to the use of this tiger cub in public contact situations.”

According to the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, years ago there were more than 5,000 tigers thought to be held in private hands across the United States - far more than the number of tigers in the wild. Now that number may have doubled. Exhibits like these seem to fuel trade in the captive tiger industry. Outrage surrounding exhibits like this point to the need for enforceable federal regulations.

As many who wrote the Commission noted, the broader issue here is not whether the exhibitor is complying with the law but the fact that it is cruel and abusive to have exotic cats bred for these traveling displays at all. Where do they all go when they're no longer small and able to be handled? Where will little Takara and those like her end up? CNN covered this controversy in a recent video expose HERE.

A federal ban on the private possession of big cats has been proposed and is before Congress right now. Endorsed by leading animal welfare organizations like the HSUS, IFAW, Born Free USA, Big Cat Rescue and other accredited wild cat sanctuaries throughout the country, The Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act is gaining momentum for passage. Big Cat Rescue has brought organizations together as a coalition to take a 3-pronged approach to this issue:

  • Pass a federal ban
  • Remove the generic tiger loophole from USFWS
  • Petition the USDA to end cub handling

The public is beginning to realize the breeding and trade in big cats, using them for such a short period of time while they’re cubs like Takara, is fueling a massive amount of lifelong suffering for these animals. Those wanting to urge their representatives to pass this bill can easily do so at this action link HERE.

The Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act has been reintroduced as HR 1998 in the House and S 1381 in the Senate. Welfare agencies want animal lovers to channel their outrage. They point out that the most important thing the public can do to stop tigers like Takara from this suffering is to ask their Congressional representative to sign on as a Co-Sponsor of this bill.

A free phone call or email - is that too high a price to pay to save a tiger, rather than $20 to pet one?

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