Swim With a Tiger? Bad Idea


I once watched a group of 300-pound wild cats devour hunks of raw meat as big as my head. It stunned me. I witnessed this more than a decade ago at the San Francisco Zoo — feeding time for the tigers, lions, and other big cats. The shock was twofold. First: Huge. Cat. Paws. Claws. Teeth. Devour. Bones and all. Second: The big cats resembled huge versions of domestic cats, so when I got home I told my Cleo and Tiger Lily, “If you were big enough, you’d EAT me!”

That’s a comical route to a serious issue: Big, wild cats don’t belong near ordinary humans who lack training, knowledge, and the equivalent of electrified suits of armor. Big cats are gorgeous. They’re fascinating to watch. But, being cats, they’re moved by instinctual forces such as needs for territory and food. And they possess massive power. Big cats can kill a human in seconds. Ask the family of Carlos Sousa Jr., killed in 2007 at the San Francisco Zoo by a Siberian tiger who’d escaped. Investigators later reported that Sousa and two friends injured by the tiger had taunted her. That was outlined in this report by the San Francisco Chronicle. One trainer speculated the cat, Tatiana, was eliminating a threat to her territory after the taunting — like cats do. The zoo wasn’t innocent (it had to better fortify the enclosure and settled claims by the victims) but reading the follow-up stories it’s clear the tragedy was incited by needless provocation.

Here’s Tatiana. Photo by Matt Knoth / Creative Commons

Tatiana was killed by police, demonstrating how big cats can suffer when humans interfere. Regardless of what you think about zoos (I have very mixed feelings about them), if a human upsets the balance that big cats and their handlers create, things go awry. Which brings us to our second Bonehead of the Week: A program called Swim With a Tiger at a Florida zoo known as Dade City’s Wild Things.

Swim With a Tiger lets customers spend $200 for 30 minutes in a pool with a tiger cub. Animal advocacy groups including PETA and Big Cat Rescue in Tampa have protested the practice in recent years claiming the cubs are mistreated. In August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees zoo regulation, filed a legal action known as an administrative complaint against Wild Things alleging mistreatment of the cubs, the Tampa Bay Times reported. In an online petition quoted by the Mirror, PETA cites “alarming video footage” that shows a cub named Tony “repeatedly crying out in distress as a reporter stops the baby tiger from escaping the swimming pool. The terrified cub is ignored and later can be seen in the background trying to escape again, only to be pushed back in.”

The group is probably referring to a segment of Good Morning America from October 2012. In the mostly playful report, an ABC reporter in a pool with Tony the Siberian tiger cub explains how Swim With a Tiger works. I have not worked with big cats, but to me, Tony looks and sounds clearly distressed as he attempts to flee the man and the pool. In the studio, the hosts’ laughter makes me even more uneasy.

One might argue that Tony’s distress is basically a scaled-up version of an ordinary cat event — like when my mackerel tabby, Thomas, shouts to me that a strange cat has entered our yard. Regardless, the point is that I don’t want to cause a cat any distress, and I wouldn’t put Thomas in a pen or a pool or a room where strangers could pay to be with him if it made him anxious. I don’t treat a friend that way. Also, Thomas is an adult. The Florida cubs are quite young and still developing.

Tiger swim at Dade City's Wild Things
Tiger swim at Dade City’s Wild Things. Photo via Pinterest

There’s also reason to believe that Dade City’s Wild Things causes more than banal aggravation for animals. Here’s part of the USDA complaint:

Respondent [Dade City Wild Things] has continued to mishandle animals, particularly infant and juvenile tigers, exposing these animals and the public to injury, disease, and harm. Respondent held or participated in events that included allowing members of the public to handle young and juvenile tigers, to paint the fur of young and juvenile tigers, and to force young and juvenile tigers to ‘swim’ and to ‘play’ with members of the public.

Zoo director Kathy Stearns denies all charges in the complaint, which carries potential civil and criminal penalties, alleging it’s the result of pressure from the protest groups. She told the Tampa Bay Times she cares about animals, and that captive environments such as Wild Things might be the only habitats eventually left for wildlife because of human encroachment.

If Stearns is correct, I hope overseers at other facilities keep humans and animals out of each other’s personal space more than Wild Things does. Everyone would bet better off.

Here’s an online petition urging Wild Things to end Swim With a Tiger.

About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. This career journalist loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called “a high-powered mutant,” which also describes his cat, Thomas. He is senior editor at Catster.

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