Letter to the Editor MSmith@pvtimes.com
The term "responsible wild animal owner" is an oxymoron. Responsible people do not endanger their communities while forcing wild animals to suffer lives of deprivation and boredom for their own amusement. The following is a partial listing (584) of incidents in the U.S. involving captive exotic cats since 1990. The U.S. incidents have resulted in the deaths of 21 humans, 16 adults and 5 children, the additional mauling of 193 more adults and children, 170 escapes, the killing of 93 big cats, and 122 confiscations. These figures only represent the headlines that Big Cat Rescue has been able to track. Because there is no reporting agency that keeps such records the actual numbers are certainly much higher. http://www.bigcatrescue.org/big_cat_news.htm
The Journal of Internal Medicine in 2006 estimated that 50 million people worldwide have been infected with zoonotic diseases since 2000 and as many as 78,000 have died. Read more about zoonotic diseases here: http://www.bigcatrescue.org/zoonosis.htm
To see the number of exotic cats abandoned each year go to http://www.bigcatrescue.org/animal_abuse.htm
Reporters often ask, "Who keeps big cats as pets?" and their question is usually a request for contact information so that they can interview the people and get photos of them with their hands in the cages, or worse yet, rolling about on the ground with lions, tigers and other creatures designed to hunt and kill animals far more powerful than humans. It gets attention to publish such photos and that sells papers and ad space, but it also helps perpetuate the false notion that man can control such magnificent beasts. It is a romantic notion that attracts even the most intellectual in our society when we see such images splashed across the page.
As is often the case, the media is looking for eye candy and bizarre tales to titillate the public because the public is often deemed too dull to really understand matters of substance. It is a self perpetuating prophecy then that reporting entertainment and calling it news creates a society that is apathetic toward real news because it isn't considered main stream, and thus is often labeled as being the work of zealots with some imagined, anti cultural agenda.
Little do the reporters know that when they ask the question, "Who keeps dangerous animals as pets?" they are really asking one of the more profound sociological questions of our age. There is a stereotype; and as someone who grew up being described as a beautiful blonde (who would, of course, be stereotyped as dumb) I disdain stereotyping more than most, but if there is anything at which I excel, it is recognizing a pattern.
Despite my lack of formal education I score at the genius level in IQ tests because the tests do not measure what you know, but rather measure one's ability to recognize a pattern. I became successful in real estate investment by looking at hundreds of properties before buying one. I look at entire trends, or patterns of growth in areas to determine the best deals. I taught myself how to do all of my own legal work by pulling case files of similar cases and looking for what they all had in common and emulating the process. There was a time when I had 60 such foreclosures, evictions and quiet title suits pending in the same year and did them all pro se. I only ever lost one case and won it on appeal.
After rescuing 56 lynx from a fur farm and discovering there was virtually nothing available in the literature to enable me to care for the cats I began meticulously detailing every meal, every incremental gain in weight and every observation in order to compile the data into information that could then be relied upon for future reference. The BigCatRescue.org website is a culmination of much of that research and again, I taught myself how to build a website by looking at others and seeing what the good ones had in common.
Regardless of the topic, there will always be exceptions to the rules, but in the case of people who possess wild animals those exceptions are so rare that they even further emphasize the commonality of the rest. The traits are so apparent in the manner of the person and the nature of their handiwork, whether it be a web site, a blog or the way that they exploit the wildlife in their possession that even the most gullible can see through the transparent veneer.
Some of the characteristics are embraced by both genders and others are gender related.
What is almost universally shared by those who keep wild animals as pets, or props and even most of those who operate private zoos and sanctuaries is that they are uneducated, poor, unattractive, hot tempered, attention seekers. Marked differences in the genders are that men are usually slovenly, womanizing, have a criminal history or leanings, and are dependant on drugs or alcohol to manage their depression. Whereas women are most often blonde, fat, have low self esteem, are childless or estranged from their families, and prone to rages of jealousy. This generalization may sound harsh but you don't have to be a genius to observe the people involved and verify the validity of such statements yourself.
These characteristics are interrelated for obvious reasons. Those who are uneducated and unattractive have fewer opportunities for wealth, but it is human nature to blame others for misfortunes, rather than to look within, thus causing jealousy and rage. With a world of information at our fingertips, ignorance still passes from generation to generation because in some cases there is an expectation of the child that they can never do better than their parents. A child raised in an environment of domestic violence and expected entitlement without work is likely to grow up into an adult with the same attitudes and behavior. Thus it comes as no surprise that generation after generation of "tiger tamers" continue to try and support themselves from their trade even long after the public has decided that these are unacceptable ways to treat any animal.
Considering these personal traits it also makes clear the necessity of having something that makes them feel good about themselves. In the case of those who make pets of wild animals, there is a universal need on their part to portray themselves as having a bond with the wild that other "mere mortals" cannot achieve. They will always tell you that they have a special gift or training that sets them apart, so that THEY can pet the tiger, but YOU cannot. They call themselves "Educators" and drag their wild animals around from flea market to fair ground, espousing the reasons that OTHER people (the mere mortals) should not attempt to have these as pets, because only THEY are special enough to have such a pet. Roy Horn would surely have uttered the same sentiments just minutes before his tiger, Montecore, nearly killed him on stage in Las Vegas.
If you meet an exotic pet owner without a boa around their neck, or a tiger on a chain, within two minutes they have pulled out a dog-eared photo album of all of their pictures of them restraining animals that would never allow a human near them if they had the choice. In their eyes it is an immediate way to even the playing field and let others know that they are equals, if not superior. The overwhelming need to do so is a manifestation of the great lack of self esteem they feel but dare not admit, even to themselves. The mood elevating drugs (legal and illegal) and the alcohol are the only ways they can deaden themselves to the pain that cannot be remedied no matter how much they talk about their wild animal connection.
Abusing their animals and their families cannot give them a lasting sense of power. That is why they are often unmarried and estranged from their families. Their families can break free from them, but the animals are kept chained and caged, the way they might well have kept the people in their lives were it not an offense that could land them in jail. Men who could not attract a woman in any other way will often find that women (the blonde, overweight ones who have little sense of self worth) will do anything to please including cleaning his cages, his house and his underwear and giving him the affection that no woman of any self confidence would.
On the flip side of this gender role is the woman who is so physically and emotionally undesirable that no man will have her, but if she has a back yard full of tigers she can attract the attention of young men who come seeking a way to prove their manhood by subduing a wild animal that would kill him in an instant were the two to meet in a natural situation. It is the same unquenchable desire to feel empowered without paying the price of self introspection and change and could be likened to the gambler's quest for easy money without work.
By the early 1990's science was beginning to discover the extent to which animals exhibited intelligence and emotion. Anyone who has ever had a pet cat or dog could tell you that they are intelligent and that they feel loneliness, anger, resentment, embarrassment, joy and a host of emotions, but it took science hundreds of years to catch up. Keeping wild animals captive began to be considered cruel and self serving as people became aware of the fact that the tiger in the cage could experience the pain of being held against his will. It became fashionable then for exotic pet owners to call themselves "educators" and some even manage to give an educational spiel but it doesn't matter how good the message may be; if you are standing there with a cougar on a leash, no one is hearing the message. They are just thinking how cool it would be if they could have a cougar on a leash. The litmus test is the fact that these people were not doing conservation education before they needed that label to justify their behavior and the minute they can't use the animal as a prop they wouldn't choose to be in the education business.
The roadside zoo operators and pseudo sanctuarians are, in many cases, just a more organized version of the exotic pet owner and have found ways to get the public to support their delusions of grandeur. They portray themselves as rescuers and martyrs for their cause. When they are poor and filthy and uneducated they can tell themselves and others that it is because they are so altruistic that all of their time and energy is being sacrificed for the good of the animals they have saved. They quickly learn that high profile rescues and having cute babies around bring in donations. They claim to breed the animals to save them from extinction, when none of the animals in these collections are really involved in any conservation breeding programs. They claim to be educating the public to save habitat and the planet by taking their cats out to parking lots in circus wagons and setting up a donation jar. Some do a better job of fooling the public than others and the media often plays into their hands, but the only real purpose they serve is their own self aggrandizement and a way to pay their bills without having to get a real job.
This becomes abundantly clear when they have rescued dozens, or hundreds of animals and found that it is a reverse pyramid scheme that is ultimately doomed to collapse. While babies and new rescues generate money, they also add to the mouths that ultimately need to be fed. In some sanctuaries there is a practice of rescuing animals, for whom they have no space, and them forcing these animals to live in overcrowded groups. This is especially heinous in the case of big cats who are solitary by nature and hard wired to kill each other if they come in contact. That fact plays into the hands of these most abusive personalities. In some pseudo sanctuaries certain animals, deemed "too dangerous" are killed for no apparent reason than to make room for more rescues.
These exploiters can rescue far more cats if the cats kill each other and for that reason these places are often closed to the public. If the fighting and killing becomes known to the public it is rationalized by the sanctuarian who protests that it is the cat's fault if they won't get along, claiming that they did their part to rescue the animal and if it insists on getting killed, then it is the animal's lack of gratitude at fault. The same irrational reasoning is used to excuse why they do not provide medical care for the animals by caustically replying to you, as if you were the idiot, that these animals don't get medical care in the wild. The same excuse is used for not providing contraception and the side benefit they get from that is that the cubs produced are often food for the rest of the animals in the group and if they need a new baby for photo ops or for media attention there is always one to use. In order to cover their misdeeds the policies in these kinds of places are to not give the animals names, under the guise of avoiding anthropomorphism, but the real reason is because there are virtually no state or federal laws that require positive identification of the animals and not having a name makes it even harder to track what has happened to an animal after it was "rescued."
These operations invariably implode. When they do, the owners move away, abandon the animals, and tell themselves and the world that they have done their part and must retire because it has taken all they had, which was nothing to begin with. They will dramatically sweep a hand to their brow and announce that they are dying and that it is time someone else stepped up and took over. When they walk away from all of the animals that they so professed to love, they do so with no feelings of remorse because they are more affected by their sense of entitlement than to anything that resembles responsibility. They move to a new place, change their name and do it all over again.
The exotic animal "rescuers" are often the most vocal in opposition to ending the exotic pet trade. They rant incessantly about how greater restrictions on wildlife trafficking will mean that they have to euthanize all of their animals when that has never been true. Where laws have passed in the US banning the trade in wild animals there have always been grandfather clauses that allow the private owners to keep their animals until they die and there have always been exceptions made to organizations, such as accredited zoos and sanctuaries, but the ones screaming the loudest have no interest in meeting a higher standard. They use the opportunity as a platform for disseminating false information and blaming people who truly care about animals for all of their woes.
Even those "sanctuarians" who do not publicly speak out against more protective laws do virtually nothing to assist in their passage. Some may pay lip service to the activity but it doesn't take long to figure out that they know nothing of the pending legislation in their state nor at a federal level. They love to cite the IRS as their reason to not get involved, implying or stating that charities cannot participate in any way, but that isn't true. They frequently excuse their behavior by saying that they "don't like politics" or will say they are too busy with their mission to get involved. That makes as much sense as feverishly bailing out an overflowing bathtub and saying you are too busy or too averse to knobs to turn off the water. The fact of the matter is that they define themselves by being perceived as saviors and if there were no wild animals to save they would lose their only redeeming feature.
Keeping wild animals, especially exotic cats, came into vogue in the sixties, largely due to television shows that portrayed a person as being special if they had such a pet or relationship. Television programming created the illusion of a world where people could live with lions, tigers, bears, dolphins and all manner of wild animals. Our society, long removed from any real experience with nature, longed to believe that it was not only possible, but that the animals preferred captivity to living free. Ask almost any woman who has a back yard full of lions what her first memory of that attraction was and she will often cite "Born Free" as being that "life changing moment." They conveniently forget the fact that Elsa died very shortly after being abandoned by the people who raised her as a pet and then returned her to the wild with no pride and no hunting skills.
We now have nearly half a century of data on the subject of people who keep wild animals captive and yet until the time that you read these words you probably never saw an in depth investigation into the troubled and delusional minds of those who are the captors. And that begs an even more important question..."why not?"
Not to minimize its deleterious effects on the person practicing it, but consider how much attention has been focused on women who vomit after every meal to stay thin. Oddly, the initial instigator is one and the same in that television portrays the perfect women as being gaunt to the point of it being an unrealistic achievement barring bulimia or some latter stage disease. You can't check out in a grocery store line without seeing headlines about celebrities weight struggles, and yet, to my knowledge, no one was ever so fat or so thin that an innocent bystander was killed or mauled by coming in close contact with people who are diagnosed as being obsessed with their appearance. Just since 1990 there have been more than 650 incidents involving captive big cats in the U.S. So why is it that you rarely hear more than a passing comment about the mental instability of most wild animal owners?
I think it may be the same reason that it took me, someone who takes great pride in their ability to recognize a pattern, more than 15 years to see what was undeniably before my eyes. To look objectively at the similarities in these tiger-tamer-wannabees meant that I had to look within as well. Not only who I was; blond, fat, uneducated, poor, lacking self esteem and estranged from my family, but who I am today. It wasn't until I was willing to take a good hard look in the mirror that I could plainly see underlying neurosis that so many of us share.
I am fortunate to not have grown up impoverished or in the presence of domestic violence. The very thing that makes so many "animal people" unemployable; their disdain for conformity, is what makes me successful in business, so I am fortunate to have been able to turn that to my advantage. My estrangement from my family was only because I felt like I wasn't good enough for them, and once I came to appreciate my talents we were rejoined and have worked together, side by side in caring for the animals. Having overcome obesity, cigarettes and alcohol I feel empowered and in control of my own life. Perhaps if I had not been so blessed, I would never have been able to cast the harsh light of reality on the mass illusion that I once shared. Mass illusion, because it extends to much of our society; not just those who are in possession of animals who were meant to live free.
It is that shared illusion that keeps the majority from wanting to wake from the dream. We hear about a man keeping a tiger and an alligator in his Harlem apartment and we say that he "just wasn't thinking." We hear of a woman with 50 tigers in her back yard and no way to feed them and say she "just wasn't thinking." We watch as the lifeless body of a tiger who was shot to death for escaping is hauled away and say the person responsible "just wasn't thinking." Cruelty is not the result of "just not thinking." The fact of the matter is that WE just aren't thinking, and we are choosing not to think about the plight of the animals because our own participation in their abuse is something we are unwilling to face or change.
We are a generation who was raised with zoos and circuses and even our religions proclaimed man to be master of all beasts, with little or nothing said about the command to be good stewards. We want to believe that our goodness is so palpable that even the most ferocious of animals would give up their freedom just to live in our homes. Even those who do not currently live that way often will say, "if I won the lottery, I'd have a pet tiger" as if to say that money is all that keeps them from indulging such fantasy. When we see that cute baby animal being cuddled on some talk show we choose to NOT think about where the animal's mother is, or how it came to be that he was taken from her to be used this way. When we pay to see a film about tiger brothers, even when we know that more than 30 tigers were used in the film, we choose to NOT think about where those animal will be a year from now.
If we acknowledge great suffering and choose to look the other way, how can we reconcile our conscience? When the answers are so easy and cost us little more than a few letters and phone calls to our legislators, and yet we are unwilling to do even that small thing to alleviate the suffering of tens of thousands of wild animals who are languishing in cages, possessed by a class of people who would be criminals if they treated people the way they treat their "beloved pets" how can we feel good about ourselves? Sometimes the truth hurts, but no one suffers more than the exotic animals when the only thing they have; their desire to live free, is taken from them.
The purpose here is not to insult or cast blame, but to demystify the nature of the typical exotic cat owner. I believe that we are all on a path to our higher self and that even the worst of the abusers will one day look inside and redirect their actions. Until that time comes the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. still ring true, "Legislation cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.
Feel free to quote me.
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457
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