Resist the temptation: there is no need whatsoever to play with big cat cubs

It is true that education can be the foundation for conserving endangered species, but only when the message accurately conveys reality. Photo: Erin Keane, Kentucky Center for Investigative ReportingWhat better way to make people love and conserve tigers and other big cats than by allowing them the opportunity to hold and play with a tiny cub?

They are undeniably adorable, and our all-too-common desire when presented with a unique and darling animal is to get as close as possible. Many argue that without this opportunity, people will never get the chance to see a big cat up close.

People fear that if you never garner such an experience, you will never truly appreciate such an animal or seek out—and possibly support—the many ways we conserve such species.

We eagerly reach for $25 at a shopping mall, county fair, or roadside zoo when presented with the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to pet or pose with a tiger cub, especially when the messages being fed to us are those of “conservation,” “protection,” and “education.”

For the most part, the American public has bought into this lie.

A recent series of articles by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) took a deeper look into this industry in an effort to expose its true nature.

The series had prompted one Indiana state legislator to reintroduce a bill to put more restrictions on owners of dangerous animals in the state, but KyCIR has reported that it has died in committee.

In an interview with a woman who patronized a popular pay-for-play outfit, she admitted that “at the time it seemed like I learned a thing or two about tigers, although I can't recall at the moment.”

Is this forgetfulness because she was too focused on competing with the other 35+ customers in the play area for a chance to interact with the one or two cubs being smothered with attention? Or was it because very little factual information was actually provided during the experience?

Personally, I think it is purely because we don’t pay to play with tiger cubs to learn.

It is true that education and awareness can be the foundation for conserving endangered species, but only when those messages accurately convey reality and result in action. Educational campaigns aimed to reduce demand for tiger products in consumer countries which result in decreased poaching; this will indeed protect wild tigers.

Taking a photo with a tiger cub in Indiana or Myrtle Beach and maybe coming away with the knowledge that tigers are endangered will, unfortunately, do nothing to further tiger conservation.

Herein lies the rub.

Your participation in an “experience” actually fuels a lucrative business that requires constant tiger breeding to produce a steady stream of cubs, which will inevitably outgrow the “cute and cuddly” phase and after a few short weeks will be euthanized, sold, or discarded to a sanctuary.

In fact, this industry is one of the leading causes of the overpopulation of unwanted, displaced, and neglected big cats in the country.

Temptation isn’t meant to be easily resisted, but by educating yourself on the reality of an issue, those choices should become slightly more straight-forward.

We should choose to learn about tigers, other big cats, and conservation in a way that doesn’t exploit the offspring of the species we claim to love.


In the end, it does matter what you know, care about and take action on, so educate yourself on the issue of cub-petting by reading the series of articles from KyCIR.

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Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Gail A'Brunzo, IFAW Wildlife Rescue Manager
Wildlife Rescue Manager, IFAW HQ
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy