Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese General who wrote the classic text ‘The Art of War,’ said ‘Build your enemies a golden bridge’. He meant corner your enemy, and then rather than fighting, create a path of escape in the direction that you want them to go. The Golden Bridge works by closing off all options except […]
21st Century Conservation
I have spent more than 30 years of my life developing safe proven training programs for both handlers and animals. At TIGERS and the Rare Species Fund, we endorse an interactive approach to animal ambassadorship. Our highly structured program of intensive socialization, careful breeding and cutting edge enrichment ensures that well adjusted and happy animals become model citizens who are flourishing in a human environment. These captive-born animals will never be introduced into the wild. Understanding their species-specific needs and the employment of carefully designed, interactive husbandry techniques allows them to thrive in captivity. Scientific research has shown a myriad of benefits captive wildlife can experience through regular human interaction. Animals who have not had the opportunity to become comfortable and trusting in human interactions can become stressed, anxious, and possibly problematic in the execution of the simplest captive care and veterinary tasks. We are invested in training well socialized ambassadors, comfortable in their lives, to represent species that we are actively working to conserve in the wild.
Untrained, unsocialized animals are stressed and fearful and don’t make good ambassadors. Only the most tractable and well trained animals become the Animal Ambassadors of TIGERS/RSF. Our ambassadors provide a window to a world that most Americans will never witness first hand. Our program creates a powerful experience that engenders the human-animal connection. People who feel connected to animals in a tangible way are much more likely to support conservation efforts in the wild. The TIGERS/RSF Animal Ambassador program has raised more than $1,000,000 for small on-the-ground conservation projects we support around the globe.
The Politics of Division
Unknown to many, the role of animal ambassadors has become a point of division within the zoological community. The reason for this split is the growing influence of animal rights behemoth, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), over zoo policy at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the largest zoological trade association in the U.S. The HSUS believes in a hands off approach, preferring captive animals behave as if wild. Ignoring the essential role that captive conservation programs play in combatting extinction, they believe that zoos should transition to the role of animal “sanctuaries”, where the remaining captive animals would live out their lives until they die, completely eliminating AZA’s long standing Species Survival Plan (SSP) programs, and completely ignoring the success of multiple captive breeding programs of endangered species around the world. HSUS has been anti-zoo until just recently when they identified an opportunity to gain influence at AZA. HSUS advocates the elimination of all captive breeding projects, and wants all captive animals to be treated as wild (and expendable) animals, regardless of the inherent dangers potentially posed for handlers and the public.
Ironically, most of the accidents with big cats, lethal and otherwise, have occurred at AZA zoos that have adopted this “wild animals in captivity” model; most notably, San Francisco Zoo in 2007 when a tiger killed a patron and injured two others— and more recently, Palm Beach Zoo in 2016 when a tiger killed a zookeeper.
I attribute the perfect safety record here at TIGERS/RSF to the fact that we have evolved our zoological model to focus on socialization, training and rigorous enrichment opportunities, ensuring that our animals are healthy and happy in a “captive setting.” Why any institution would intentionally ignore an animal’s needs in captivity to the point where it is dangerous to feed, move or provide vet care, is incomprehensible. Yet this ignorant policy of isolation is exactly what HSUS is attempting to force on zoos across the country.
TIGERS/RSF Professional Handlers
At TIGERS/RSF we don’t have inexperienced keepers and interns caring for our animals as is routine at many AZA zoos. Our program of training professional handlers is unequaled in the zoo world. We receive hundreds of applications for our apprentice program every year, but only accept a very small handful of individuals. Those few that meet our exacting requirements commit to working 365 days a year, long hours, for a minimum of two years. There are no days off. Because developing hands-on, interactive relationships with animal ambassadors is a full-time commitment, apprentices work without expectation of days off or vacation. The first few years of training to be a TIGERS/RSF professional handler consist of doing non-animal-contact chores, all the while, observing the animal body language. Observing these behavioral nuances helps apprentices establish a foundation of true species understanding that later interaction may be built.
Working as a professional handler at TIGERS/RSF requires unwavering dedication and years of training. The lifestyle is rigorous and trainees are expected to maintain the physical standards of a professional athlete. Diet and regular exercise are mandatory. It takes five to ten years to become a novice trainer at TIGERS/RSF. Only this kind of dedication, discipline and training can produce a professional handler that is able to provide the type of consistency, understanding, and experience necessary to safely interact with Animal Ambassadors in a way that enriches the animals’ lives and brings the message of conservation to the public.
Message of Conservation
Having been featured in popular media such as PBS and National Geographic documentaries, children’s books, music videos and feature films, our Animal ambassadors have attained celebrity status. Their high profile and charisma have inspired millions of Americans to take a greater interest in conserving rare and endangered species. Our handler training, unblemished safety record, and superior enrichment opportunities have set the stage for our animal ambassadors to happily, safely meet world conservation leaders, state legislators here in South Carolina, members of the public, and even members of the U.S. Congress. Wherever we go, the Animal Ambassadors of TIGERS/RSF carry the message of conservation to America.
Watch this slow motion video of tigers running at full speed as part of the TIGERS/RSF Animal Ambassador enrichment program.
HSUS Smear Campaign
Last month the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) attempted to smear the good name of TIGERS with lawmakers in South Carolina. They passed out a handout characterizing TIGERS as a “roadside zoo,” alleging “violations” of the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), and citing “inspection reports” from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Well nothing could have been further from the truth. TIGERS has never had a violation of the AWA. And now USDA has taken steps to prevent animal rights activists from misusing their good work to defame legitimate stakeholders.
As some of you may know, there is a bill in the South Carolina legislature that seeks to regulate the ownership of big cats, non-native bears and great apes. It will require owners to have a USDA license or register their animals with local animal control. Last month, TIGERS attended a committee hearing on the bill at the House Agriculture Committee. During the hearing HSUS testified that they would like to see all primates added to the list of animals regulated, and further, they wanted all owners to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a private trade association that has the endorsement of HSUS with an agreement to promote HSUS ideology.
Intention to Deceive
After the hearing, the HSUS lobbyist gave the bill sponsor a handout that implied TIGERS was a sub-par “roadside zoo” with multiple “violations” of the AWA. As evidence, the handout cited USDA “inspection reports.” When the citations in the handout were followed, they didn’t lead to the USDA website, but to the website for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA). PeTA, using the publicly available, pre-decisional reports that had been available on the USDA website, had created their own ideologically based interpretations designed to make stakeholders look like villains. The actual reports were quite benign, and amounted only to minor “non-compliance” issues that every zoo deals with every day.
A teachable moment is a minor non-compliant item that: 1) the facility is willing and able to correct quickly; 2) is not impacting the welfare of any animal(s); and 3) has not previously been cited. — USDA/APHIS, January 2016
There is a huge difference between a “non-compliance” issue, and a “violation.” These minor compliance issues are easily corrected prior to USDA follow up; facts conveniently omitted by PeTA, and happily exaggerated by HSUS to indict TIGERS for “violations.” Violations are serious, and constitute grounds for USDA to revoke a stakeholder’s license. Again, TIGERS has never had a violation of the Animal Welfare Act.
TIGERS/ Myrtle Beach Safari
The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (TIGERS) is one of the top wildlife preserves in the country. We are accredited by the Zoological Association of America and licensed, inspected and regulated by the USDA. Our facility is built outside of Myrtle Beach on 50 acres and houses approximately 100 animals. We have invested millions of dollars in a state-of-the-art, interactive facility that is unmatched anywhere in the country. Our investment in handler training, humane care, secure containment, and enrichment for our animal ambassadors, is far beyond what is required by the USDA. We are proud of the fact that we bring millions of tourist dollars into South Carolina every year.
USDA Moves to Protect Stakeholders from Animal Rights Abuses
Because of abuses by HSUS, PeTA and other animal rights groups, the USDA has changed it’s policy about the types of information made available on their website.
USDA/APHIS is implementing actions to remove documents it posts on APHIS’ website involving the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) that contain personal information. These documents include inspection reports, research facility annual reports, regulatory correspondence, lists of regulated entities, and enforcement records (such as pre-litigation settlement agreements and administrative complaints) that have not received final adjudication.— USDA/APHIS, February 4, 2017
The USDA decision to provide some protection from the malicious characterizations of USDA reports is supported by the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), the second largest zoological accrediting body in the United States.
For too long the Federal Government through the USDA has been violating the privacy of citizens with its acts of intrusion in the name of transparency. The USDA records availability were intended for use by animal welfare advocates to monitor government regulation of animals and the treatment of wild and domestic animals. However, this welfare information soon became the fuel and ammunition of animal rights activists in a smear campaign to discredit zoos and animal owners.— ZAA, February 9, 2017
HSUS/ PeTA Track Record
It is important to understand, that while groups like HSUS and PeTA portend to protect animals, their interest is purely ideological. The primary mission of most animal rights groups is to raise money using slick propaganda designed to tug at the heart strings of an animal loving American public. They are very good at this, but HSUS and PeTA are not in the business of caring for animals. The idea that with no practical experience they could analyze and interpret USDA reports without ever visiting a facility is preposterous.
Marketing materials showing abused dogs and cats suggest HSUS plays an active role in caring for homeless pets, however according to HSUS’ 2015 annual report, they took in over $194 million with less than 1% donated to animal shelters. They operate no animal shelters on their own. But HSUS did find enough in their budget to spend over $33 million on fundraising. Additionally, in 2014 HSUS and co-defendants were forced to pay almost $16 million to settle a Racketeering Lawsuit filed against them, after the judge discovered evidence of witness tampering and bribery by an HSUS subsidiary and their attorneys.
PeTA is just as bad, maybe even worse. According to a watchdog group, in 2009 PeTA “rescued” 2366 dogs and cats. 31 were transferred to other facilities. 8 were adopted out. 2,301 were killed at PeTA’s little shop of horrors in Norfolk, VA. That’s a kill rate of over 97%. PeTA’s idea of “rescue” appears to be euthanasia on a grand scale.
Thank You to the USDA/APHIS
It is a huge step for USDA to limit the ease with which animal rights groups abuse efforts at transparency. We consider USDA to be a crucial partner in creating an ever improving environment for our beloved animal ambassadors. With the help of USDA we bring the message of conservation of these magical creatures to thousands of people every year.
White Tigers are NOT Genetically Defective
There is no evidence of a genetic defect inherent in the white color variant of the Royal White Bengal Tiger, notwithstanding the erroneous claims to the contrary by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). White tigers have a normally occurring, simple recessive genetic color variant known as leucism, much the same as the leucistic (white) deer common to the Carolinas. Leucism and albinism are not the same. White tigers are not albinos and do not carry the genetic weaknesses associated with albinism. According to a recent study published in Current Biology, the gene known as SLC45A2, is a naturally expressed color variant that was common in wild tiger populations prior to extirpation by poachers, hunters and habitat fragmentation in the 1950’s.
White Bengals result from genetic mutations that are part of their natural species diversity, and we have a responsibility to save them”– Shu-Jin Luo and Xiao Xu, Scientific American, 2014.
Leucism, as a simple recessive genetic trait, can be carried by normal (orange) tigers, even though the white color is not visibly exhibited. In humans, Type O blood is a simple recessive trait. This means that in order for a person to have the phenotype for Type O blood, he or she must inherit one Type O gene from each parent. A phenotype is an individual’s observable traits, such as height, eye color, and blood type. The genetic contribution to the phenotype is called the genotype (the genetic ingredients that an animal has, whether or not those traits are visible).
The white gene can be inherited undetected in orange tigers for generations, because a tiger only appears white when each parent in any particular breeding passes the gene for leucism. When two normal colored tigers are bred carrying the recessive leucistic gene, white offspring can occur. The spontaneous occurrence of white tigers in the U.S. population proves that the gene for leucism is widespread in the species.
An animal is heterozygous at a gene locus when it contains two different alleles of a gene. Many orange tigers are heterozygous for leucism, meaning that they carry a dominant gene for the orange color as well as a recessive gene for white. These cats have one of each gene to potentially contribute to offspring, with an equal chance of passing the orange gene or the white gene. When an orange tiger carrying the white gene mates with a white tiger, each of the offspring has a 50% chance of of being white and 100% of the offspring will carry the white gene. If two heterozygous tigers (orange tigers each carrying the recessive white gene and a dominant orange gene) mate, each offspring has a 25% chance of being white; each has a 50% chance of being orange but carrying the white gene, and each has only a 25% chance of being orange and not carrying the white gene. Two visually white tigers bred together will produce only white cubs.
At the Rare Species Fund in Myrtle Beach, we have dedicated ourselves to producing some of the most magnificent and healthy Royal White Bengal Tigers the world has ever seen. The genetic diversity of our breeding stock, combined with hand rearing, good citizen training and unparalleled enrichment opportunities, have enabled us to produce animals of incomparable grace, beauty and genetic vigor.
Genetics or Inbreeding?
William Conway, former director of the Bronx Zoo’s New York Zoological Society, a/k/a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), was convinced that white tigers were the victims of a hereditary genetic defect that was isolated and propagated for sideshow exhibits. He actually compared white tigers to “two headed calves.” The comparisons would later be made ad nauseam by the AZA and surrogates for HSUS attempting to set public opinion against white tigers.
White tigers are freaks”– William Conway, Director of the New York Zoological Society (a/k/a WCS).
This flawed argument was formally adopted by the AZA, and focuses on claiming a genetic defect in the white color variant, yet AZA provides no direct examples nor evidence to support the claim; all the while, contradictorily conceding that defects are actually the result of “poor breeding practices.”
Conway’s views held great appeal for animal rights advocates who already considered all animal breeding as “exploitation.” The AZA, one of two trade associations that accredits zoos in the U.S., adopted a policy banning all white tiger breeding in a white paper published in 2011. The irony is, AZA accredited zoos actually pioneered white tiger breeding in the U.S. during the 1960’s and 70’s.
Conway’s apparently limited understanding of white tiger genetics appears to be responsible for his failure to comprehend that the white allele was a naturally occurring simple recessive genetic trait carried by many healthy, normal-appearing Bengal tigers, and at one time was visibly expressed in a healthy wild white population. The trait is not only perfectly normal, but the genetic material catalogued within the DNA “fingerprint” of white tigers is reported to be comparable in diversity to that contained in the orange population.
Notwithstanding, the AZA states that the white gene, “has been clearly linked with various abnormal, debilitating, and, at times, lethal, external and internal conditions and characteristics.” But what they fail to do, is cite any evidence connecting “abnormal” or “debilitating” mutations to anything other than problems more closely related to “breeding practices” than any manifestation of genetic deformities.
Science over Superstition
The best available science recommends saving and strengthening the diversity in the white Bengal tiger, leaving the AZA “no breeding” policy in stark contradiction with the welfare of the species. The facts are simple. The recessive white gene SLC45A2, in and of itself, is not flawed. For example, the gene that makes black leopards black, is also a simple recessive, and AZA zoos do not ban black leopard breeding. The change in policy at AZA seems more correlated to what appears to be an informal alignment with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), to protect AZA market share from non-AZA zoos. The policy to ban the breeding of white tigers is an ideological choice, unrelated to science.
Much of the misinformation surrounding white tigers has been proliferated by Carole Baskins of Big Cat Rescue. She has posted her HSUS inspired interpretation of the AZA white paper, along with William Conway’s views, on her website, which in turn has been republished by The Dodo and One Green Planet, and punctuated with horrible photos of inbred tigers. It is worthy of note that Ms. Baskins uses no scientific citations to support her claims of genetic defect. She uses inflammatory rhetoric and shocking images in lieu of facts.
While the original confusion regarding white tiger genetics understandably stemmed from personal opinions derived from a poverty of scientific data, the current anti-white tiger sentiment of AZA/HSUS flies in the face of the best available science. The AZA appears to have aligned themselves with HSUS not only to protect themselves from being targeted by the animal rights industry, but to discredit other legitimate zoological institutions that don’t toe the HSUS/AZA line on captive wildlife policy. It should be interesting to see, as more science becomes available dispelling superstitions about white tiger genetics, if AZA will defy HSUS and adopt a science based policy?
According to Dr. Brian Davis of the Exotic Genome Repository, “There has been no genetic study that has demonstrated a negative biological effect connected to the white variant in tigers. When the white tiger existed in the wild prior to human eradication, adults were common, indicating no decrease in fitness.” Additionally, leucism exists in numerous other species. These traits, erroneously associated with white, are actually strongly linked with inbreeding, regardless of coat color. Contemporary American tiger populations do not need inbreeding to perpetuate the white variant, since the gene is prevalent within the orange population as well other genetic variation that humans have driven extinct in the wild.
There has been no genetic study that has demonstrated a negative biological effect conferred by the white variant in tigers.”– Brian W. Davis, Ph.D., Comparative Genomicist, Exotic Genome Repository
Royal White Bengal Tigers are Magnificent!
Anyone who is interested in seeing what healthy, happy white tigers actually look like, feel free to visit my facility in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Our state-of-the-art facility is home to a number of the most fantastic white tigers on the planet today. We didn’t give up on the white tiger. To the contrary, our breeding and enrichment programs are superior to any other zoological facility in the world. Come see white tigers run at full speed through varied terrain. There is not an experience that can compare to seeing these powerful animals do what they were born to do. If you can’t visit in person, watch the video below. Capturing the imagination of millions, the Royal White Bengal Tiger is undeniable in its power as an animal ambassador for conservation, and is a portrait of genetic vigor!
Watch this amazing high speed video footage of perfectly healthy white tigers running at full speed as a part of the Rare Species Fund tiger enrichment program.