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Dangerous Exotic Pets: Big Cats

Private ownership of tigers, lions, cougars, leopards, jaguars, and cheetahs threatens the animals and the public

  • Like the owner of this emaciated pet lion, private owners often fail to provide a proper diet. 

  • A tiger paces in a tiny enclosure, typical for many pet big cats living in backyards or basements.

Tigers, lions, and other big cat species have exploded in popularity in the exotic pet trade. There are an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 tigers in the United States, but fewer than 400 of them are in zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Even when born in captivity and hand-raised, these wild animals retain their predatory instincts. They can (and do) injure and kill people, as evidenced by the hundreds of attacks by big cats in the U.S. in the last two decades alone.

In captivity, big cats suffer immensely from being confined to cages that are magnitudes smaller than the vast distances they typically roam in the wild. Allowing private possession of these animals poses unnecessary and preventable risks to public safety—and to the welfare of the animals themselves.

Threats to big cats

Big cats kept as pets are prematurely removed from their mothers—often within just days of birth—which often denies them proper nutrition and the natural socialization process required for normal development. The cubs very quickly mature to the point where their great strength and wild instincts make them impossible to control, and they are then, more often than not, relegated to live the remainder of their long lives caged in backyards, basements, and garages. More on big cat welfare »

"Daddy, why did that tiger bite my arm off?"Four-year-old boy, recovering in a hospital after he was attacked by his uncle’s pet tiger in Texas

Threats to public safety

Tigers, lions, cougars, and other big cats are efficient predators who have no place as pets in our communities. Tigers are 360 to 720 times more likely to be involved in a fatal attack than dogs. Since 1990, more than 300 dangerous incidents involving big cats have occurred in 44 states. Four children lost their lives and at least 66 others lost limbs, suffered paralysis, were left permanently blind, or suffered other injuries. Sixteen adults have been killed, and scores have been mauled. The animals involved are victims, too—more than 100 have been killed following attacks and escapes. List of big cat attacks and escapes »