In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, there is at least one entrepreneur that will let you pet and get your picture taken with tiger cubs. The only problem is, that, in paying for that once-and-a-lifetime photo, you are supporting the exotic pet trade. These predatory animals are only gentle for a small window of time before this entrepreneur will get rid of them and find new ones. Wild cat sanctuaries, like Carolina Tiger Rescue, are always at capacity, so the entrepreneur has two options: to find an individual owner or kill the animals. Due to the exotic pet trade and the entertainment industry, there are currently more tigers in captivity in the United States than there are in the wild world-wide.
The Carolina Tiger Rescue, a wild cat sanctuary in Pittsboro, North Carolina, wishes that they didn’t have to exist. However, due to the large numbers of tigers in the United States, there is a need for wild cat rescues. In order to work towards a future where wild cat sanctuaries are no longer necessary, the Carolina Tiger Rescue works towards changing perceptions about wild cats through education, guided tours of their facility with staff members and a summer camp for children.
The Carolina Tiger Rescue was founded in the early 1970s. At that time, it was known as the Carnivore Evolutionary Research Institute, founded to breed four lesser-known keystone species until their native habitats were protected. In 1981, the Carnivore Evolutionary Research Institute became a nonprofit, changing their name to the Carnivore Preservation Trust (CPT). Species Survival Plans were developed by the environmental community to protect the diversity of these wild cat species so breeding programs were no longer necessary. However, more and more people approached CPT to take in other species of wild cats that needed a home. In 2000, CPT shifted its mission from conservation to rescue.
In 2009, CPT again changed its name to Carolina Tiger Rescue in order to reflect their status as a wild cat sanctuary and new mission: “saving and protecting wild cats in captivity and in the wild.” To achieve this mission, Carolina Tiger Rescue works to change perceptions through conservation education.
Each year roughly 19,000 guests come from all parts of North Carolina, the contiguous United States, and other countries. Their tours are limited to a certain number of people a day and are always guided by Carolina Tiger Rescue staff. This allows for visitors to really get to know these animals, the stories that led them to where they are, and the unique personalities of each animal. Being close to these animals is a powerful experience for awe-struck visitors.
Pam Fulk, Executive Director, shares the story of Aria, one of their resident tigers, who was purchased as a pet: “When we got called, the authorities were intervening because she was starving to death. She was half the size a female full-grown tiger should be. When we got down there, found her, and brought her back, we found out that it wasn’t because they weren’t feeding her but because they didn’t have adequate vet care—there was no vet anywhere around who knew what to do with a tiger—and it turned out that she had Pancreatic Insufficiency Disease. She was eating but she couldn’t metabolize it. We identified that from her examinations, started treating her, and we’ve had her for two years now. She is a beautiful girl.”
In the U.S., only 28 of the 50 states have completely banned the keeping of pet tigers. 14 states regulate the keeping of pet tigers, requiring owners to simply register their “pets” but 8 states, including North Carolina, have no regulations on owning a pet tiger whatsoever. Some individuals believe they can treat wild cats as non-threatening pets, instead of the predatory animals that they are.
One visitor, a legislator, commented that there really isn’t anyone raising Cain about these issues. This is largely due to the fact that 90% of Carolina Tiger Rescue visitors believe that it is already illegal to own these animals, according to pre-and post-tour survey data. In increasing their conservation education efforts, Carolina Tiger Rescue hopes to change this perception and find the voices to “raise Cain” about the fact that it is not illegal to own tigers in North Carolina.
The late Jelly Bean, a former resident at the Carolina Tiger Rescue, was yet another educational tool. As Jelly Bean was a male white tiger, the staff would stop and talk about how white tigers are man-made for the entertainment industry and the number of animals that are destroyed in the process of making white tigers.
Wild cats are often seen as entertainment objects with businesses and entrepreneurs using these animals as gimmicks for monetary gain. Much of the public doesn’t understand that participating in these gimmicks supports exotic pet trade. This trade takes these animals out of their native habitats, where they serve a crucial function, to place them in the hands of the entertainment industry or individual owners. Once they are removed from the wild, or man-made in the case of Jelly Bean, they can never return to their native habitats. There is no rehabilitation for these wild cats. Carolina Tiger Rescue works to keep these wild cats where they belong.
Part of changing attitudes is educating the next generation of animal lovers. The summer camps, run by Education Director Katie Cannon, aim to “plant the seeds of change” in campers. Kids work with the staff to get to know each animal’s story, to see how much work goes into taking care of each animal, and to learn about each wild cat species and how medications affect each wild cat species differently. At the end of the camp, under the guidance of staff, the kids become the tour guides, teaching parents and family about each animal.
“We have a gal who has been with us almost as long as I’ve been here and her granddaughter has grown up around us. Her granddaughter was in class one day and she was talking about the binturong. Well, her teacher said ‘there’s no such thing as a binturong!’ She immediately took her to the computer and pulled up our website and showed her a picture of a binturong.” Fulk says, “This is so energizing to me. We have this little kid out there teaching the people around her about these animals!”
If each of the 19,000 guests can change the perceptions of just one person around them, like the little girl who taught her teacher about binturongs, Carolina Tiger Rescue will be that much closer to achieving their mission.
Carolina Tiger Rescue is a wildlife sanctuary whose mission is saving and protecting wild cats in captivity and in the wild. Jordan Smith is a recent graduate of NC State, holding her Master’s degree in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Composition