There are more tigers in American gardens than there are left in the wild. Alex Hannaford meets the owners who live cheek by jowl with their pets, and also those ensuring the big cats are treated without cruelty
It was the sort of headline impossible to scroll past: Pot Smokers Find Caged Tiger in Abandoned Houston House, Werent Hallucinating: Police. Last February, a group of people had snuck into a deserted house in Texass largest city to smoke marijuana when they stumbled upon a full-grown tiger in a cage a cage secured by just a nylon strap and a screwdriver. Sergeant Jason Alderete of Houston Police Departments animal cruelty unit, later told a local TV station: It wasnt the effects of the drugs. There was an actual tiger! The animal was given a name, Loki, and sent to an animal sanctuary in the country, run by the Humane Society of the United States. Youd be forgiven for thinking Lokis experience was an isolated incident it isnt.
An oft-quoted statistic is that there are more tigers in American back yards than there are left in the wild. According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, there are between 3,200 and 3,500 tigers remaining in the wild globally. By some estimates there are 5,000 in captivity in the US, though there might be more. The truth is we have little idea how many there are in American ranches, unlicensed zoos, apartments, truck stops and private breeding facilities, due to a mishmash of state, federal and county laws governing their ownership.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, only 6% of Americas captive tiger population lives in zoos and facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums; the rest are in private hands. Some are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture and others by state laws, but some are not regulated at all. In some states, it is easier to buy a tiger than to adopt a dog from a local animal shelter, says the WWF.