Owners need to remember that even the smaller of the non domestic cats, such as bobcats, servals, and lynx, are not at all like domestic cats. Different species have different temperaments, but all of these cats can exhibit unwanted behavior from urine marking to aggression. Most of these cats will need spacious outdoor cages in order to thrive. It is a huge commitment and responsibility to properly care for smaller wild cats such as bobcats.
The large cats such as lions, tigers, leopards, and cougars are even more problematic. Even if they are not overtly aggressive, their natural tendencies must be remembered. They are predators, and even at play their huge size and strength makes them a threat.
Many people do keep big cats like bobcats, tigers, and lions as pets. Tigers and lions are surprisingly easy and inexpensive to purchase as pets. This means anyone can own a large powerful carnivore whether or not they are equipped to properly care for them. Pet tigers have been involved in several fatalities and maulings in the US and Canada in recent years. However, even more pet tigers and other big cats end up neglected, abused, or given up to sanctuaries when their owners cannot care for them. I am certain that there are owners of big cats who go out of their way to provide appropriate housing and diet and have no problems, but there are countless others who are very misguided in their expectactions and ability to provide the proper care. Case in point: the man in Harlem who raised a pet tiger in his apartment.
The Captive Wildlife Safety Act
The Captive Wildlife Safety Act was introduced and passed in the US House of Representatives in 2004 to address the problems of availability of wild cats as pets. This Act prohibits the interstate and foreign trade in exotic cats, including lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars and cougars for the pet trade. Circuses, zoos, wildlife rehabilitators and some other licensed facilities are exempt. This legislation was introduced with the sole purpose of making these big cats unavailable to the pet trade, although it is not an outright ban on ownership. I am not sure how much of an impact this law would have, really, but it is a good start in reducing the ownership of pet tigers, lions, and other large cats.
Experts estimate that there are around 10,000 to 15,000 tigers now kept as pets or in private facilities in the US. For perspective, it is estimated that there are only about 5,000 left in the wild.
Things to Think About
If owning a big cat still intrigues you, here are some factors to consider:
- Keeping wild cats such as tigers, lion, bobcats and cougars may be illegal where you live (either under local laws or by wider regulations - see "Legal Issues").
- You will need to find a veterinarian that is willing to treat your wild cat (this will not be easy!).
- All big (wild) cats have sharp claws and teeth and can be quite destructive.
- Large cats eat massive quantities of raw meat.
- Big cats need a lot of space, and usually custom built cages, even smaller species like bobcats.
- You will need to provide lots of intellectual and physical enrichment opportunities, much like a zoo, for your wild cat.
- Big cats tend to spray (urine) and they have a musky odor.
Here are some pages that discuss the issues around selecting a big cat as a pet:
- General Requirements for Private Ownership - from Wild about Cats, a good page to look at for anyone who has wondered what would be involved in owning a large wild cat.
- The Cost of a Big Cat - from Big Cat Rescue, this article covers the maintenance costs of keeping big cats (housing, feeding, etc.), which many owners don't realize are very expensive compared to the initial cost of getting a cub.
- Animal Abuse - also from Big Cat Rescue, this article discusses how the future for many big cats is a life of neglect and even abuse when their owners cannot handle them anymore. See the statistics for the sanctuary with respect to number of calls they get about unwanted cats, the number they are able to take and the number they can find new homes for. Also see their article on breeding to see why this sanctuary does not breed their cats and why the casual owner shouldn't either.
Should private ownership of big cats be permitted? Vote in our poll.