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  • Writer's pictureStaci-lee Sherwood

Inside the Big Cat trade : Tiger cub petting, Lion meat and ‘The Conservation Game’

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

By Staci-lee Sherwood

Please don’t pet me

Who doesn’t love baby animals. Go on any social media site and you’ll see time and again some of the most popular videos and posts involve baby animals. There’s something sweet and appealing that draws us in. Does anyone ever stop to think how this animal came to be in the photo? Just a lucky shot by a passer by or perhaps this is a posed photo op designed to get as many ‘likes’ as possible ? Before the internet we only had television that came every night into our living rooms bringing with it all sorts of things available to us without ever leaving home.

The popularity of seeing baby animals outside of a zoo grew into a growing barrage of zoo keepers and animal trainers who appeared on television talk shows bringing a menagerie of animals for the crowds to gush over. Often times these animals would be baby animals that would be picked up, cuddled and kissed to the delights of audiences. How many viewers ever asked how these animals felt being handled by strangers? Look closely into their eyes and you can see their expression is really saying please don’t pet me it terrifies me. In the wild Tiger cubs tend to stay with mom for a couple of years so another dark side of the cub petting is that tiny cubs are taken away from mom often hand raised with a baby bottle while mom is either kept separate to be bred again or sold off to who knows where.

But I saw it on the TV

Television was originally thought to be merely an outlet for the government to inform its citizens. That quickly changed into a multi billion dollar industry that reached a global market. With so many potential viewers the race of ratings was on and high ratings mean big bucks from advertisers. Nothing spells money like cute baby animals being hugged by their trainer while the camera pans the mezmorized audience. Watching these animals it’s clear to anyone that these docile animals on display had to be drugged. No way would any animal be so calm while surrounded by strange smells, sounds, bright lights and people handling them if they weren’t given a hefty dose of drugs designed to make them appear calm and happy.

Television networks like ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and FOX all had and continue to have talk shows that cater to this. From Johnny Carson and David Letterman to Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have all been guilty of catering to cheap easy ratings rather than provide unique content to their shows. Their ongoing parade of exotic animals, especially the very young ones, shows how willing they are to be lulled into the lies that this helps conservation, the animals are well cared for and that they’re trained not drugged for their performance. No one asks just where do these animals really come from because they don’t just magically appear in a zoo one day. Some of the shows driving the cub petting industry by making the handling seem acceptable have been :

Good Morning America, Late Night with David Letterman, Larry King Live, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Today Show, The Rachael Ray Show, Live with Kelly and Ryan to name a few.

As millions of viewers tuned in all these tv shows and their networks each helped drive the American big cat trade in both live animals and parts. This explains in part why the news shows on these same stations rarely cover the issue of animal exploitation at zoos, roadside attractions or backyard breeders. Deep down they know they have a hand in this sick industry but their addiction to profit overrides their sense of morality. Stories only make the news when they are so egregious like Joe Exotic or when too many locals catch the problem with their cell phones and make it go viral. A quick google search brings up several photos of Jay Leno holding different cubs along with a barrage of wild animals spanning many years on the Tonight Show. Celebrities have a long history of photo ops with exotic animals done for their fans,

As ratings increased the accredited zoos realized they needed to continually have a fresh batch of exotic baby animals on display to keep the visitors coming back. Because so many cubs are bred and then space and money to keep them as adults becomes a problem the zoos look elsewhere to dump the big cats. That problem helped grow the roadside zoos where the animals live in deplorable conditions and are subjected to unspeakable abuse. For some having their own backyard private collection was the ultimate prize. At every turn all these popular talk shows and their hosts are not only driving this depraved industry of exploitation but are culpable as well.

Quickly all these businesses learned that photo ops with exotic animals was a keystone path to huge profits. Throngs of selfish ignorant tourists come in droves for the chance to squeeze a lion or tiger cub and go home with a keepsake of the cherished moment. For that terrified tiger cub that photo is a memory of abuse captured on film. The public may think accredited zoos are above reproach but they profit from captivity and are very much a part of the bigger network of abuse and corruption. All the people involved from the breeders, zoos and trainers to the networks, tv shows, tv hosts, celebrities and customers wanting to touch a tiger are all enablers and keep the industry going.

Jay Leno with zoo keeper Steve Irwin in 2003 for the Tonight Show

WATCH WHAT HAPPENS LIVE Emmy Rossum Gus and Alan Cumming photo by Peter Kramer NBCU Photo Bank NBCUniversal via Getty Images

When con artists enter the conservation game

We’re all influenced by what is presented to us on television, social media or the newspapers. Growing up and constantly seeing big cats, cubs and other exotic animals on a tv stage be presented as entertainment makes it acceptable. These con artists reap millions while exploiting the animals all under the ruse of conservation are shameful. Though there aren’t any laws that make this practice illegal one’s sense of morality should step in and make one ask where do these cubs come from, what happens once they get too big for photo ops ? Despite the huge hit of Netflix’s “Joe Exotic” series about this very industry the endless parade of cubs et al continues unfettered.

Famous names like Jack Hanna, Dave Salmoni and yes even Steve Irwin made their claim to fame on the backs of animals who had no choice in the matter. Hanna, who ran the Columbus Zoo for years, was one of the most egregious he spent decades exploiting animals allowing countless big cat cubs to be handled and then shipped off to who knows where. The USDA makes all this possible by keeping it legal to remove cubs after weaning, which can be at about 8 weeks old, for use in cub petting, tv appearances and at some places one can arrange a special expensive one on one time where you can pet or feed the cub privately. When you’re in the business of abuse anything is on the table.

Take for example a notorious place in South Carolina, Myrtle Beach Safari. run by Doc Antle. His personal life seems as exploitive as his business where he has many young women who live and work at the park which appears to be more like a cult than a legitimate business. This place is so bad it was raided in 2020 but thanks to his lawyers a hearing has been postponed. His website boasts lots of encounters with a variety of obviously drugged and neglected animals including elephants people can stand on, big cats they swim with and probably anything else your imagination comes up with. You can see the cheering customers and B rated celebs he boasts about such as Floyd Mayweather and Bobby Flay.

In 2019 Keith A. Wilson, owner of Wilson's Wild Animal Park, was indicted on multiple counts of animal cruelty and trafficking charges. Then it came to light he obtained some of his animals from ‘Doc’ Antle. Feds seized 119 animals including several big cats from Wilson’s park and one can only hope they all found a home in decent sanctuaries. Most of the time seized animals are either deemed too sickly and put down or wind up in the hands of similar owners as the ones indicted. Keeping track of trafficked animals has never been a priority and many go missing. In 2020 Antle was also indicted on charges of trafficking and cruelty along with two of his daughters, but due to a delay in a trial his park still remains open.

In 2016 the USDA finally cracked down on non accredited zoos and said that “exhibitors violate the Animal Welfare Act by allowing members of the public to handle or feed infant exotic cats like tigers, lions, cheetahs, jaguars or leopards.” Carole Baskin founder of Big Cat Rescue in Florida had pressured the USFWS for years to rescind the Generic Tiger loophole which they did which banned the breeding of non purebred tigers. Before that the USDA had more jurisdiction over exotic animals than USFWS and that allowed for an explosion of cross breeding of big cats which had no legal protection because these hybrids weren’t regulated by USDA. Once that gap was closed and it was declared that a tiger is a tiger which meant all these tigers and cross bred tigers had legal protection.

The perversion of the exotic pet owners

Baskin said many of these pet owners use the animals to attract people and exert dominance. It’s about ego and control she said ‘trying to prove their special in some way’ and use the tigers as bait It’s clear these pet owners are broken and despite their public pronouncements their so called pets usually live in either deplorable conditions in dilapidated outdoor cages with sub standard food, maybe even rotten . Abuse, neglect and loneliness is the standard way of life for big cats in private collections. A few might live indoors with their human companions but that comes at a cost consisting of always being drugged and or beaten as a control to contain their natural wild and aggressive nature.

Not your average Joe

Now that most have seen or heard about Joe Exotic and the hundreds of exotic animals he neglected and eventually lost from his zoo the story doesn’t end there. Despite decades of documented abuse it wasn’t until Exotic went off the rails and publicly proclaimed Baskin as enemy number one declaring he would put a hit on her. Finally after years of threats the FBI stepped in and long story short Exotic was indicted on multiple felony charges including attempting to murder Baskin and is serving 20 years in federal prison.

Though Baskin had hoped to be awarded his big cats in her lawsuit against him her sanctuary was not granted custody since the animals were not considered assets so they were awarded to Jeff Lowe his business partner at the time. Shortly after that Lowe lost his USDA license which made keeping all these animals illegal. While some of those previously seized animals went to other accredited facilities the whereabouts of many is unknown.

Exotic had said he could make $100,000 off each cub as photo prop which is what keeps driving this industry to keep breeding these big cats. Another factor brought out in the Netflix series was how Walmart would ‘donate’ expired meat though they claimed they made it clear this was not for human consumption, This was meat tossed in barrels left unrefrigerated and then cast off to places like this. As seen in the series Exotic would encourage his staff to take some of this expired meat for themselves. It should be noted that many of the staff at his zoo had serious drug problems as well or were recently released from prison. Baskin said Walmart was ‘enabling these backyard breeder places’ by giving away food which helped them stay in business

Is that Lion meat in your taco ?

Every few years there’s a news story usually buried behind that days headlines about some restaurant selling exotic meat like lion. Americans don’t really have an appetite for eating lion but they do gravitate toward the latest gimmicks. Restaurants know this especially with such tight competition for customers. The latest trend in food might sound like a million dollar idea but everyone knows that foodies are fickle and will only be loyal to that particular eatery for as long as clubbers are to the latest dance hotspot. It might come as a surprise to most but exotic meat is not required to be inspected for safety by the USDA. Restaurants that sell lion meat claim it’s USDA inspected but according to the USDA they do not inspect exotic meat. Knowing the public will believe that lie at face value these eateries claim the breeders of such meat are USDA licensed facilities.

In 1997 an investigation called Operation Snowplow uncovered endangered tigers being killed for meat then sold as lion which wasn’t an endangered species at the time. While several people where charged and arrested it only served to slow down but not stop the trade in big cats and their parts. Much of these animals killed for meat are the adult big cats that had been bred for the cub petting pay for play then sold off once they were too big for the photo ops.

A new documentary ‘The conservation game’ shows how the cub petting industry started in the US back in 1980s. Interesting to note the film’s producers are having a hard time finding someone to distribute it widely like Netflix, Disney or Hulu. Though Netflix and Hulu didn’t exist back when this all started they fear if they show this film it will cause them problems since they deal with the very same agencies that caused this problem in the first place. Click here to learn more about the film

Another documentary about the big cats is “The hidden tiger” you can watch here

A glimmer of hope

For those that would like to help end this you can by clicking here Ask your Members of Congress to champion the Big Cat Public Safety Act HR263/S1210 which has bipartisan support. The bill bans cub petting no more pay to play which stops the breeding and phases out private ownership. Baskin said ‘we are going to lose the tiger in the wild if we don’t stop this legal smokescreen that hides all the illegal activities ‘ Let’s work to get this passed now.

Click or copy and paste here to find your Rep at

Click or copy and paste here to find your Senator at

Please support & working to save the Florida panther

Click or copy and paste for the full interview with Carole Baskin founder of Big Cat Rescue

Jay leno holds a tiger cub in 2013

David Bowe and wife Iman with Siegfried and Roy

From Doc Antle’s park what you can pay for

Joe Exotic in 2014

Dade City Wild Things 2015 with 2 week old cubs

YOU are their only voice use it wisely because they can’t speak for themselves

Hoda Kotb and Kelly Clarkson with tiger cubs 2017 Today show with Grant Kemmerer of Wild World of Animals

Wildlife Safari in Oregon 2021 a sterile home for a tiny cub

Also published here

and here at Big cat rescue under News

744 views2 comments


McKenna Grace Fisher
McKenna Grace Fisher
Sep 29, 2021

~ This is a brilliant penned and informative article ~ Thank you ~ mgf

Staci-lee Sherwood
Staci-lee Sherwood
Sep 29, 2021
Replying to

Thank you

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