Within a few hours, I had seven people offering to sell me a live tiger.
I was tipped off by a friend—whose mother worked with tigers—about the frighteningly easy path just about anyone can take to purchase a perfectly designed feline killing machine on the internet.
I had to find out for myself if it was really so easy; after all, I am the kind of man who was once offered the opportunity to buy weapons on Facebook. But to track down these sellers, I didn’t have to plumb the depths of the dark web. All it took was Googling “Buy Live Tiger.” After paging past articles about livestreams for Detroit’s baseball team and a certain resurgent golfer, I found ads on Exotic Animals for Sale and Adtob’s long listings for tigers. And even one ad that showed a small child dancing with a wild cat. The price? Up to $2,000, but as low as $800. A typical ad for these big cats reads:
“They are very obedient tiger cubs who have grown up in the midst of kids and other pets and has no problem with living and playing with them and will keep you entertained. Loving and very affectionate personality, like to give kisses, have been trained to have the run of the kitchen at different times and are put down for naps just like kid. They are well socialized with kids, have been vaccinated and will come with vaccination papers, toys, diapers and other accessories.”
I sent some emails. “I am an up-and-coming magician and I want to buy a tiger for my magic act. I’m looking to buy 1-3 tigers.” The responses started rolling in.
One seller offered such impressive perks as a tiger training manual as soon as I wired him money. Others responded:
“We give a life time support to every family that adopt an exotic from us because we know not everyone has enough experience to raise their exotic alone, we will help you for as long as your pet is alive. It will be a non-stressful flight for the tiger to get to you as we ship through professionals… It will take approximately 72 hours for you to receive the tiger from the time of payment. He will come with his chain and playing toys. Yes, he can be taught to jump through hoops.” (Presumably in response to my specific magic show query.)
Many of the people who responded to my magician/tiger inquiries (believe it or not!) were actually running scams—especially those who said they’re located overseas.
“If they’re in another country, it’s impossible to get a cat to you. They would literally have to smuggle it in,” said Susan Bass of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, an animal sanctuary dedicated to rescuing exotic felines who have been abandoned by their owners.
But the more alarming fact is that it’s not illegal—and actually terrifyingly easy—to buy or sell a tiger in the United States. It’s actually simpler in many states to purchase a tiger cub than to go to your local humane society and adopt a puppy. Four states (Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin) have zero laws regulating big cat ownership.
Even in the states that do enforce them, regulations are quite bendable. “I believe in Florida you’re suppose to own five acres of land—that’s supposed to be for the cat to roam five acres,” said Bass. “[But] you can just turn around and stick a cat in a tiny 10×10 cage. You just have to own the land, but the cats don’t get to roam the land.”
Florida is one of the states that doesn’t allow tigers as pets, but there’s a workaround for that, too: “You can circumvent the law by getting a USDA Exhibitor’s License,” Bass added.
I called the USDA.
“I would like to get a USDA Exhibitor’s License.”
“What kind of animals do you have?” asked the representative.
“Tigers!” I exclaimed. “I have 5 of them.”
Unfazed by my response, the representative asked, “How are you going to exhibit them?”
“I want to start a roadside zoo.”
I was then told the process: After you pay the license fee ($40, which you can pay in installments) there’s a pre-license inspection. Before that, you can call and ask questions to ensure you have all the bases covered to pass the inspection.
“They come out and look at your animals. A general look at their health, and that they’re compatible and not in the same cage as each other,” informed the USDA representative.
“Should I fill out the form and send it back?”
“It’s easier to do over the phone,” the rep assured me.
Bass believes that Texas has the most tigers for sale in the country, followed by Florida. The U.S. government and animal welfare groups have estimated that there are 5,000 to 10,000 tigers in the United States, bred on our soil to live in backyards, roadside zoos and in homes. Those numbers are all the more shocking when contrasted against the World Wildlife Foundation’s stat that only 3,890 endangered tigers roam in the wild.
Bengals and Siberians are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Since the tigers bred in the U.S. are mutts largely produced through inbreeding, they are not considered important to conservationists, so their sales/purchases have not been federally regulated.
“The only purebred tigers bred in the U.S. are in AZA-accredited zoos that are part of the Species Survival Plan for tigers,” Bass explained. “All the others are ‘junk’ or ‘generic’ tigers because they are not purebred so their lineage can’t be traced. They can be a mix of Sumatran, Bengal, Amur, South China, etc,” adding “Believe it or not, nobody in the United States is keeping track of [exactly] how many people own big cats.”
Why would someone want a tiger in the first place? “One of the things is people want to have that ego ‘I’m special’ feeling. ‘Come over to my house, we’ll have dinner, and I’ll let you meet my pet tiger,'” said Bass. “All of a sudden, you’re a lot more interesting.” Snoop around Instagram and you’ll see that it’s littered with rich people who view tigers as luxury items.
Others buy tigers for breeding or makeshift roadside attractions. “They’ve figured out that people will pay quite a bit of money to have little Johnny hold a tiger cub on his lap and have his picture taken, or teenage kids who think ‘that looks cool on my Tinder account,'” said Bass.
One roadside zoo is Dade City’s Wild Things in Florida. They charge visitors to hold and even swim with tiger cubs in a chlorinated swimming pool.
“They look at their adorable eyes and their tiny little tiger cubs, and don’t fathom that the cat is going to weigh 200, 300, 500 pounds in about a year and eat them out of house and home,” said Bass. People might think they’re going to make it rich with their makeshift backyard zoo, but most haven’t factored in even things as simple as food costs. “It’s unbelievable, it costs like $10K a year.”
And of course, sometimes things go wrong. In October 2003, a 400-pound tiger named Ming was found living in Antoine Yates’ a fifth-floor apartment in Harlem. Yates first raised suspicion after checking into a hospital with massive bites on his arms and legs, which he claimed were from a pit bull. Then, his neighbors below complained that urine was seeping through their ceiling. The NYPD was notified and an officer rappelled down the side of the building to fire tranquilizer darts through an open window to subdue the tiger. Once at the window, the officer tapped on the window with his shoe and the tiger lunged at him before being tranquilized.
And then there’s perhaps the biggest mishap. In 2011, sheriff’s deputies in Zanesville, Ohio shot nearly 50 wild animals—including 18 rare Bengal tigers—after the owner of a wild animal park threw their cages open right before committing suicide, apparently one last act of spite against his concerned neighbors and pesky police. The small-town police force wasn’t equipped to deal with escaped wild jungle animals and had to resort to killing all of them. This horrific incident served as a tiger wakeup call to Ohio, which has since banned the trade and breeding of exotic animals.
“I’m often angered,” said renowned zoologist Alan Rabinowitz, on the podcast On Being, “by people who feel that humans can truly bond with wild animals to where you can go up and touch them or sleep among them. And invariably, those people either get killed or mauled. By spending so much time in the jungle with these wild cats, I came to realize that there would always be a wall between us, a wall that couldn’t be breached and really shouldn’t be breached because we were of two different worlds.”
Luckily there are the good guys: groups dedicated to rescuing tigers that have been abandoned after their owners recognize the expense, like Bass’s outfit, and Carolina Tiger Rescue, an organization based in Pittsboro, N.C., that rescues abandoned or abused tigers. Some have had their fangs or claws removed. Other discarded tigers have genetic disorders that arise though inbred puppy mill-style breeding.
Adam Selbst lives in New York, but he’s spent time at Carolina Tiger Rescue, where his mother worked after she retired, and where he got to know a tiger named Tex whose previous home was a roadside zoo in Florida. “His owner would tie him up and put him on a short-chain to a tree and people would take pictures of him,” Selbst explained. “He had to open his own cans of dog food with his mouth. He was not a nice tiger. He was damaged goods.”
“All the tigers they get are rescue tigers that people have dumped off on the side of the road,” said Selbst. “Or somebody died and they owned several tigers, or sometimes a zoo closes down.”
Big Cat Rescue also has dealt with taking in the cats after owners simply just walked away from their tigers, leaving them to starve.
“We’re a little bit different than other sanctuaries,” said Bass. “If someone is a private owner of a cat, and they say, ‘Oh, I can’t handle this cat, I want to get rid of it,’ we actually have them sign a contract that says they will never again own an exotic cat.” Though the contract is not legally binding, it prevents owners from using sanctuaries such as Big Cat Rescue as an ongoing dumping ground, “because their cat got old or sick, or now needs medical care, and they want to turn around and get a cute little new cub and start all over again. We don’t want to be part of the problem.”
“It’s so screwed up,” Bass continued. “We can’t regulate ourselves out of this. We need to have a federal ban.” Big Cat Rescue and a handful of other tiger sanctuaries have created a collation to try and pass a federal law called The Big Cat Public Safety Act that would end the private possession of tigers as pets. “We’re very close we hope to getting a hearing in the House,” said Bass. “It will stop private ownership and it will ban the public from having direct contact with tiger cubs. That’s the most important thing.”
After speaking with Bass, I got one more response from a seller who felt very optimistic about my dream of dressing my newly purchased tiger up in a modified tuxedo for my faux magic act:
“I have never tried to teach my tigers how to wear people’s clothes but you can try to do that, if you think you can achieve the goal considering that they are still young.”