Big Cats in Captivity: Rescue and Advocacy - United StatesThere are more tigers in captivity in the United States than there are in the wild
From the ocelot to the mighty lion, wild cats are some of the most fascinating animals on our planet. Out of the 36+ different species of wild cats, there are a select few that stand out for their sheer size and strength. That’s right, we’re talking about THE big cats. And we’ve got the answers to your most popular questions.
My cat is pretty chonky. Would she be considered a big cat?
Your cat could outweigh Garfield's love for lasagna, and she still wouldn’t make the cut. Scientists categorize big cats based on two specific qualities: they belong to the genus Panthera and have a special two-piece hyoid bone in their throat that allows them to roar. This limits the big cat club to just lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars. Sorry, Fluffy.
What about cheetahs and cougars? Are they considered big cats?
Yes and no—your answer depends on who you ask. Big cats were originally classified as the main four listed above, but over the years this has changed. Cheetahs and cougars were left off the list because they don’t belong to the genus Panthera. Cheetahs are the only living species that belong to the genus Acinonyx, while cougars belong to the genus Puma. Both cats also lack a hyoid bone, setting them apart once again from the roaring big cats. Despite these biological differences, cheetahs and cougars have characteristics that make them very strong candidates for the big cat club. They are, clearly, very big cats, are critical species for a healthy ecosystem, and face many of the same threats like poaching and habitat loss. For these reasons, many conservationists find it acceptable to include cheetahs and cougars in the big cat grouping.
Speaking of cougars, what’s up with the cougar/puma/mountain lion/panther lingo?
We hear you. It can be confusing keeping track of all of these names. The good news? They all refer to the same animal. With such a wide geographic range, the wild cat has earned a variety of names from different cultures and countries. In fact, it holds the Guinness record for the animal with the most names—over 40 names in English alone! (Remember that for your next trivia night.)
So are jaguars and leopards also the same species?
Nope! Jaguars and leopards are two distinct species (Panthera onca and Panthera pardus). At first glance, they may look very similar—but there are a few key ways you can easily tell the difference. The two big cats live in geographically diverse areas of the world. Jaguars are found in the Americas, stretching from the scrublands and forests of Mexico down to the tropical rainforests of South America. Leopards live in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, preferring deserts, grasslands, and rainforests. One of the easiest ways to visually differentiate a jaguar and a leopard is to look at the pattern of their coats. Jaguar coats have black dots in the rose-shaped spots, while leopards do not. Body shape can help as well, as jaguars have a thicker head and bulkier body compared to the sleeker leopard.
Which big cat is the largest?
You’d think with a nickname like king of the jungle, lions would be the largest of the big cats. But there’s another big boy that you may not be familiar with. With males weighing over 600 pounds and 10 feet in length, the Amur tiger (Siberian tiger) is the largest of the big cat species. In comparison, the average male lion weighs in at 420 pounds and six to seven feet long. Despite its grand size, the Amur tiger has a long history of fighting for survival against habitat loss and poaching. With only 500 individuals left across Russia, China and North Korea, the Amur tiger is classified as endangered and continues to face an uphill battle.
IFAW has a special connection to this mighty tiger. In 2013, we made history by rescuing and releasing Zolushka, the first rescued Amur tiger to return to the wild. Two years later, a camera trap photographed Zolushka with two cubs! Her full transition back into the wild is a huge success for her species.
What threats are impacting big cats? How can I help?
Jaguars killed for their fangs, tiger cubs sold to the exotic pet trade, lions in search of natural habitat…big cats around the world need our help. IFAW works closely with government officials in priority areas to disrupt wildlife trafficking at every stage. We also have strong ties to local communities like the Maasai in Kenya and work with them to implement sustainable solutions that help people coexist alongside big cats and other wildlife.
In the United States, big cats are facing a very specific problem: the dangers of captivity. And private ownership. Today, we estimate that there may be more tigers in captivity than left in the wild—and the majority of them are living in inhumane conditions (think backyard cages and makeshift personal “zoos”). If passed, the Big Cat Public Safety Act (BCPSA) would bring an end to the trade in “pet” big cats in the United States—keeping both animals and people safe. IFAW is here for it, and has been working tirelessly to get the bill passed in both the Senate and the House.
Everyone has a role to play when it comes to saving big cats. Here’s what you can do.
- Learn how to recognise true sanctuaries vs pseudo-sanctuaries
- Say no to exploitative cub handling operations and inhumane tourist attractions
- Report wildlife products that you see for sale online. You can do this directly through social media platforms or by using our coalition's report form
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