An often used quote is that it is estimated 10,000 captive tigers living within the United States. Unfortunately, the originators of this statement were not intimately involved with the captive husbandry of wild felids and used no facts or hands on knowledge to arrive at this figure. The Feline Conservation Foundation, an organization comprised of wild feline enthusiasts, set out to discover the truth of the matter. The FCF has within its ranks many prominent and amateur conservationists, trainers, breeders, researchers, educators, sanctuary owners, as well as just ordinary people with a fascination for our planet’s wildcats. With such a diverse membership involving all aspects of wild felids, the FCF is in a unique position on being able to accomplish what no one has done before, that being to discover the true number of not only tigers living within the US, but the number of all big cats. Big cats are most generally accepted as being the seven species which weigh over 100 pounds at adulthood. These are the six species of the genus Panthera, tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars, snow leopards, and cheetahs. Big cats also include cougars which are the largest species of the genus Felis. We also included ligers which are an interspecies hybrid of a lion and a tiger. Though not a naturally occurring hybrid species, they are currently the only interspecies hybrid in captivity in the US.
Our methodology of conducting a reliable census involved the review of thousands of pages of documents from both federal and state agencies that regulate the keeping of wildcats. To establish true numbers of cats that did not fall under these regulatory agencies, we relied upon our vast network and expertise of captive felids to locate them. An animal rights group conducted an independent survey of tigers in the United States during the same time frame and came up with comparable conclusions, though understandably a smaller number with their lack of intimate knowledge of facilities holding tigers.
Despite what some people may believe, it is impossible to hide a big cat. Not only are they large animals, they also have vocalizations which can be heard for up to 3 miles. The can possess a strong odor and the fact that they eat from 4 to 15 pounds of raw meat a day are all factors that cannot be hidden. Some may want to point out examples like the tiger kept in an apartment in Harlem and our response is, “Exactly”. While that animal, and other rare incidents like it, were kept in secret for a short time, their presence became known.
In our analysis of the data, we broke down the ownership of the cats into three types…sanctuaries, zoos, and other facilities. Our criteria for classification of these three types are as follows. We define sanctuaries as a facility that regularly accepts confiscated or unwanted cats and generally does not breed them. We chose not to use tax exempt status or organizational affiliations, since these are areas of much debate. Zoos were defined as facilities that are open to the public, have a professional staff, and exhibits more than just the felid species as their primary objective. Once again, organizational affiliations were not taken into accord for the previously mentioned reasons. The “all other” facilities classification takes in everything that is left. This includes exhibitors, educators, universities, breeders, etc. While many facilities may be properly placed in two, or even all three of the types of facilities, we chose the one that best described the facility’s main objective.
The Feline Conservation Foundation conducted its first census during the calendar year 2011 and just completed its follow up five years later for the year 2016. This gives us and excellent baseline and follow up to establish trends within the captive wild feline population. It should be noted that 2 major sanctuaries closed in the year 2016 and their over 200 cats distributed to other sanctuaries. We deliberately used population figures for sanctuaries previous to these occurrences since cats were still being relocated into the 2017 calendar year.