Editor’s Notes: In response to the HSUS undercover investigation at Natural Bridge Zoo, the USDA conducted a four-day inspection and cited the roadside zoo for 31 violations (PDF) of the federal Animal Welfare Act. This includes animals going without basic necessities such as veterinary care, food and water, filthy rodent infested conditions, unsafe handling and physical abuse of animals.

In response to the HSUS undercover investigation at Tiger Safari, the USDA conducted a two-day inspection which resulted in a 14-page report that cited the facility for numerous violations (PDF) of the federal Animal Welfare Act including: failure to provide veterinary care, failure to provide adequate shelter to protect animals from extreme cold temperatures, failure to separate incompatible animals, failure to provide carnivores with a proper diet, failure to provide animals with drinking water and an inadequate number of trained employees.

This press release was updated on April 1, 2020.

Results from two undercover investigations at roadside zoos revealed inhumane treatment of tiger cubs exploited for photographic opportunities, indiscriminate breeding of tigers, rampant trade in cubs for public handling and dumping of the cubs once they were no longer profitable. The Humane Society of the United States conducted the investigations at Tiger Safari in Oklahoma and Natural Bridge Zoo in Virginia. These roadside zoos allow members of the public to pet, feed, pose and play with baby tigers for a fee.

The investigations documented the very lucrative business of using infant tigers for public photo shoots and other moneymaking events—fees ranged from $50 to $1,000 per session. Video footage graphically revealed the distress and abuse endured by the endangered animals used for this practice. Tiger cubs were forcibly separated from their mothers during birth and the first few months of their lives were dictated exclusively by public handling schedules. Cubs who were tired, overheated, thirsty, hungry or sick were required to sit still for a parade of paying customers.

The investigations also provided a snapshot of the unfettered breeding of big cats for the exploitation of their cubs, the resulting surplus of adult big cats, and the animal welfare and public safety implications when large cubs are discarded after ceasing to be profitable.

The HSUS documented:

  • Both facilities separated tiger cubs from their mothers during the birthing process for hand-rearing.
  • Tiger Safari and Natural Bridge Zoo began subjecting tiger cubs to public handling when the infants were just three and four weeks of age respectively.
  • Manhandling and physical discipline of cubs when they would not cooperate for photo shoots. All 4 cubs at both zoos were punched and slapped. At Tiger Safari, Maximus, a white tiger cub was dragged, choked, tossed and suspended by his legs and tail.
  • Tiger cubs were mercilessly over handled, were frequently awakened to be handled and often screamed in distress as they were passed around for entertainment.
  • At Tiger Safari, a tiger cub named Sarabi was handled by 27 people on the very day that she arrived at the facility, despite the fact that she had just endured a 19-hour car ride from South Carolina, was only three weeks old and had ringworm.
  • At both facilities, cubs were handled by dozens of people daily.
  • At Natural Bridge Zoo, two tiger cubs were deprived of formula, and then only fed from a bottle fashioned with a slow-flow nipple, so they could be more easily controlled during photo shoots. Meat was withheld to ensure the cubs were kept hungry.
  • At Tiger Safari, one tiger cub’s diet was so insufficient that the facility’s veterinarian expressed concern about improper development of the infant’s leg bones. At one point, the cub was purposefully fed inappropriately in the belief that it would make him more tractable during photo sessions.
  • All cubs were denied regular, necessary meat additions to their diets.
  • During the course of the investigation, the cubs at Natural Bridge Zoo were never seen by a veterinarian despite the fact that their fecal samples tested positive for coccidia and giardia, and they suffered from diarrhea and one had a suspected urinary tract infection.
  • The cubs at Tiger Safari both suffered from ringworm. One of the cubs had this contagious zoonotic disease upon her arrival at the facility, but she did not receive any treatment for it until more than a month later, by which time hundreds of people had come into contact with her.
  • At both facilities, juvenile tigers weighing 35-50 pounds continued to be used for photo sessions, even though they could barely be lifted and were very difficult to control.

Some discarded animals end up warehoused at poorly run roadside zoos and pseudo-sanctuaries or in the hands of unqualified people with private menageries. Others may fall victim to the illegal wildlife trade.

During the span of the investigations, twelve tigers who were born at both facilities were sent to T.I.G.E.R.S. (The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species) in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. T.I.G.E.R.S. is a substandard facility that breeds, trades and exhibits big cats and other exotic animals, and has built a large and very profitable business by charging the public exorbitant prices for tours and photos with young animals. When one of the investigators accompanied the owner of Tiger Safari to T.I.G.E.R.S., she received a behind-the-scenes tour where she witnessed dozens of adult tigers crammed into cement horse stalls in a darkened barn.

Ron Kagan, executive director and CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society said: "It appears that both operations are typical roadside zoos with amateur, reckless and harsh captive conditions and treatment. The physical discipline and examples of deprivation are clear as is the fact that the public is being put at risk by coming into contact with an animal capable of biting, clawing and spreading parasites."

The investigations provide clear evidence of why the U.S. Department of Agriculture must explicitly prohibit public contact with big cats of any age. This cycle of breeding, exploiting, then dumping baby animals after a few months fuels the exotic pet trade, puts animals at risk, endangers the public, and creates a burden for both law enforcement and nonprofit sanctuaries.

The HSUS has filed legal complaints with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act at these two facilities, and is urging the agency to finally act on a legal petition filed in 2012 by HSUS attorneys on behalf of a coalition of eight animal protection and conservation organizations (Docket No. APHIS-2012-0107) to prohibit the public handling of these dangerous wild animals.

Investigation report for Tiger Safari found here (PDF). Investigation report for Natural Bridge Zoo found here (PDF). B-roll footage is available here. Photos available upon request.

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