Are There Tens of Thousands of Backyard Big Cats?
The idea that there might be tens of thousands of hidden or secret big cats kept as pets in the United states does not appear to be based in publicly available data, and what data does exist indicates a much smaller population is more plausible.
Are there Tens of Thousands of Big Cats in American Backyards?
12/24/2018 - Rachel Garner
It is increasingly common for discussions about exotic felids occurring in the United States to include the claim that that there are 10,000 - 20,000 privately owned big cats hidden within the country. Variations on this claim have persisted for decades and are repeated frequently by legislators, animal advocacy groups, and the sanctuary industry. However, there is very little data to support that conclusion, and that what data does exist indicates that the population of privately owned big cats in the in the U.S. is likely to be far lower than commonly assumed.
Why Do People Think There Are So Many Big Cats?
The idea that there might be tens of thousands of hidden or secret big cats kept as pets in the United states appears to have originated from a paper about the potential dangers posed by captive tiger populations published in 2003 (Nyhus et al.). The paper stated that the United States’ tiger population could be anywhere from 5000 - 12000 animals, based on various claims from both academic and media sources, and noted that according to one media reports it was “estimated that several thousand tigers reside in the state of Texas alone.” However, the same authors noted in a textbook chapter in 2010 that while the same potential population range of tigers was plausible, the lower bound of 5000, suggested by Werner in 2005, was “more reasonable than the higher estimates of 15,000 tigers suggested by some in the media. (Nyhus et al.)”
It appears that when these two sources were cited in subsequent academic works, or when journalists sourced them for publications, the upper end of the range was consistently chosen and presented to the public as a “probable” population count (Garner, 2018a). Indeed, by the end of the 2000s, it was common for media publications to repeat tiger population numbers as high as 20,000 animals without referencing specific sources (Indian Express, 2005; Glausiusz, 2008); publications that sourced their tiger population claims generally reiterated the lower claims, suggesting there were 5000 to 10,000 tigers in the country (Garner, 2018a). The problem with these estimates is that there appears to be neither publicly available data, nor censuses or academic publications that support those population numbers, and what data does exist indicates they’re probably incorrect.
While the progression of population claims regarding all big cat species in the United States is not as easily tracked as the claims about tigers are, it’s understandable that extrapolation from the presumed tiger population numbers in the absence of specific data could lead to an increase in total big cat population claims. There was known to be a large population of big cats in private hands in the country during the 1980s and 1990s. In the early 2000s, when it was common to read that there were upwards of 10,000 privately owned tigers, it must have seemed reasonable to many people to assume that there could be as many again, if not more, of all the other species combined. One sanctuary claims that there are 5000 cougars in pet homes alone (Big Cat Rescue, 2015). Estimates of 10,000 - 20,000 privately owned big cats of all species started appearing in the narratives presented to the public around 2005, originally from major animal advocacy groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and the Fund for Animals (Whitaker, 2003; Shabner, 2005). Most of the recent repetitions of those claims either come from reporters sourcing those old statements or quotes given by the sanctuary industry. (Loria, 2016; Brulliard, 2017; “Captive Wildlife Laws”, n.d.; Big Cat Rescue, n.d.), although the International Fund for Animal Welfare has continued to give direct quotes citing 10,000 - 20,000 privately owned big cats through 2018 (Foran, 2014; IFAW, 2018). The United States Department of Fish and Wildlife once confirmed to a reporter that the agency estimates the existence of 10,000 privately owned big cats (Loria, 2016), but there is no public information about where their information is sourced from, nor has any similar statement been repeated since. Once popularized, the idea of tens of thousands of dangerous exotic felids hidden in backyards in the United States became “common knowledge”, and has persisted ever since.
What Data Is There?
While it is true that there is no registry recording all the captive big cats in the United States, nor is any government agency responsible for tracking the ownership and sale of privately owned exotic animals, there are still many sources from which to draw information that can inform a broad estimate of the entire captive big cat population in the country. All big cats of any species residing in a facility licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA APHIS, n.d.) are recorded in inventories that licensees are required to submit yearly. These records include all big cats used for exhibition, breeding programs, and entertainment, and are accessible through a Freedom of Information Act request. In addition, zoological facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums maintain their own population counts as part of Species Survival Program documents (Pfaff & Colahan, 2016; Tiger SSP 2018), and big cats in other exhibition settings have been counted by researchers using records kept through tracking programs such as Species 360 (Nyhus et al., 2010). While no federal agency keeps an inventory of big cats that reside in unlicensed settings, some states or municipalities require registration and/or licensing for dangerous exotic pets; these records are often available through freedom of information laws. While it is not possible to acquire official records of big cats or other exotic pets that live in states with no registration requirements, there are instances in which many owners have chosen to self-report for the purpose of contributing to captive big cat population studies. It is that self-reported data that is most important for getting an accurate sense of the number of big cats under private ownership, as according to most claims the private felid population is many times larger than the exhibited felid population in the United States.
The Feline Conservation Federation (FCF) has been involved in completing three difference censuses of captive big cat populations in the United States over the past 30 years; they collaborated with Brian Werner on his 2005 census, and undertook their own follow-up studies independently in 2011 and 2016 (Culver, 2011; Chambers, 2017). As the longest-running organization in the country that supports and educates people about private exotic felid ownership, the FCF is trusted by the private exotic animal ownership community and is therefore able to request information about their animals from members who might be unwilling to share any data with outside researchers. Thus, the FCF has the unique capability to be able to obtain information about privately owned, otherwise “off-grid” big cats.
The most recent FCF captive big cat census, which utilized both federal and state records as well as self-reported data from private ownership settings reported that there were a little over 5100 big cats in the United States in 2016 (Chambers, 2017). That total included all big cat species that reached over 100 pounds at adulthood (e.g. tigers, lions, cougars, leopards, jaguars, snow leopard, and ligers) in all types of settings, including zoos, circuses, sanctuaries, and private non-commercial ownership. This number is incredibly low compared to the commonly repeated estimates of big cat populations, indicating that the entire U.S. population of big cats might be less than half the ten thousand felids frequently claimed to exist just in private homes. Since the numbers held in licensed settings are verifiable, if the FCF number were to be incorrect, an error would have to exist in their survey of big cats held in the private sector. If a population of big cats exists in the United States even at the lowest bounds of the common estimates (10,000 animals), the organization that is best positioned to have knowledge about people who own pet exotic felids would have had to be unaware of the existence of another 5,000 big cats - literally as many again as their data showed them were known to exist in the entire country.
While no study has been undertaken yet that could prove without a doubt the accuracy of any of these numbers, there are also a number of other factors suggesting that the higher big cat population claims are unlikely to be accurate. Reports from credible sources indicate that big cat populations have been decreasing in the United States during the last decade. The Captive Wildlife Safety Act, which was passed in 2003, prohibited the transport of big cats across state lines without a federal permit (Captive Wildlife Safety Act, 2003): when fully implemented in 2007, the law lead to an immediate outpouring of big cats in need of rescue and, longer-term, a drop in the number of people breeding big cats with the expectation of interstate commerce (Baskin, 2015). The number of states with laws limiting or entirely prohibiting private ownership of big cats has continued to rise since then, with only four states (Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin) without any big cat related laws at the end of 2018 (Turpentine Creek, 2018). Reports from specific sanctuaries as well as trends pulled from social media indicate that the number of big cats in need of rescue or confiscated from from private-ownership situations has drastically decreased in the past decade (Baskin, 2015), suggesting that the restrictive nature of these federal and state laws have been highly successful at reducing the number of big cats in pet homes. The sanctuary Big Cat Rescue (BCR) has written that before the Captive Wildlife Safety Act was passed in 2003, the number of exotic felids in need of homes was doubling yearly (Baskin, 2018b). The sanctuary was contacted about more than 300 cats in need of rescue in 2003, and were expecting to be asked to help place 500 or more felids in 2004, but instead, a year after the law passed, were only contacted about 110 cats. (These numbers are likely to be high, as the sanctuary website often includes small exotic felids under the umbrella term “big cats”). Their annual reports since then show a steady decline in requests for rescuing cats from private ownership situations. By 2007, when the Captive Wildlife Safety Act was fully implemented, that number was down to 67; in 2011, it was down to 15 (Baskin, 2018b). While the number of total cats BCR has identified as being in need of rescue in the United States has climbed again since the beginning of the current decade, they note along with their data that the majority of the animals rescued starting in 2016 are primarily being removed from “failed zoos” and “‘sanctuaries’ who rescued their way to bankruptcy” (Baskin, 2018b; Baskin, 2017). Unlike in the 1990s, there is now almost a surplus of sanctuaries where rescued big cats can go: BCR hasn’t needed to take in any big cats since late 2017, and the most recent big cats to move to the sanctuary were simply retiring from zoo conservation programs and had been placed with BCR in a collaboration meant to free up space for the zoo’s breeding animals (Peters, 2017). Indeed, the numbers of cats being removed from private ownership situations appears to have dropped so sharply that many sanctuaries are now finding themselves free to focus on the rescuing big cats from other countries and importing them to be housed in U.S. sanctuaries (Butzer, 2018; Big Cat Rescue, 2018a Brulliard, 2017; Neme, 2014)
Another indicator of the decreasing privately owned big cat population is the sharp drop in attacks and escapes that has occurred after the Captive Wildlife Safety Act passed. Big cats are one of the most dangerous exotic animals to keep in a captive setting, due to their size, pre-equipped weaponry, intelligence, and predatory natures. Since the year 2000, over 350 incidents in which a captive big cat in the United States jeopardized human safety have occurred; more than 150 people were injured in these incidents and 14 were killed (Garner, 2018b). While the majority of these incidents involved animals kept in private hands during the early part of the 2000s, the frequency with which pet exotic felids escaped or attacked people dropped drastically towards the end of the decade, and there have been less than 5 total incidents recorded yearly involving big cats in private ownership settings since 2008. No incidents caused by privately owned big cats were documented by any of the major organizations tracking big cat public safety risks in 2018 (Garner, 2018b).
These numbers are especially relevant because of their implications about the number of big cats assumed to be in private hands. Zoos in the United States, which currently house fewer than 2000 big cats (Chambers, 2017), have had 143 incidents over the past 18 years (Garner, 2018b). According to a compilation of the big cat incidents recorded by major organizations that track them (Garner, 2018b), private ownership situations have only had 130 over the same period of time, presumably with a population of big cats in private hands that has previously been assumed to be five times the size of the zoo population. Those numbers simply don’t make sense in light of the safety features incorporated into each type of setting: zoos have professionally constructed animal enclosures, trained staff, and thorough safety protocols that most private owners cannot match. It makes very little sense that so few safety issues would occur in a private setting if there are so many more cats and relatively fewer safety features in place to prevent incidents.
A case might be made that those incident numbers from private settings might be skewed to the low side, as incidents occurring in zoos are much more likely to be publicized and private owners might be inclined to hide incidents, especially if they’re keeping their animals secretly. But the problem with that in today’s world is technology. Keeping a privately owned big cat secret, much less hiding an escape or an injury caused by one, is incredibly challenging in a world where everyone carries a smartphone with an internet connection. Keeping a big cat secret doesn’t just mean that people don’t talk about them - secret cats these days means that nobody is photographing them for instagram, tweeting about knowing someone with a pet tiger, bragging about cuddling a tiger on their tinder profile, recording the noises they make from the next property over, or flying drones overhead to get footage of what’s going on with a neighbor’s backyard. Additionally, the resources required to support keeping big cats are not things that are easy to keep secret; they require a steady supply of hundreds of pounds of meat each month and specialized veterinary care, and their enclosures must be well constructed and require frequent maintenance. Eventually most communities notice something odd about an owner’s purchasing patterns or hear a wild animal in the middle of the night and figure out that someone is keeping an exotic cat as a pet. As soon as one person knows about privately owned exotic big cats, those animals are no longer off the radar and are often identifiable. Every big cat not bred by its current owner had to come from somewhere originally, which means at least one person already knows where it is and that it is in private hands.
So How Many Big Cats Are There?
While it’s impossible to have an accurate count of the big cats currently in private hands in the United States without a thorough census, all of the relevant data seems to indicate that the lower number of big cats derived from the FCF’s 2016 census (less than 5000 total) is far more plausible than the ranges suggested frequently in the media (10,000 - 20,000 in private settings alone). The larger number of big cats in private hands in the US would by all indications lead to more reported attacks, escapes, and sightings than are currently documented every year.
A Selection of Current Captive Big Cat Population Claims
“An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 big cats languish in deplorable conditions in backyards, roadside zoos, and traveling exhibits throughout the United States.” - BigCatAct.com (Big Cat Rescue, 2018b)
“An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 big cats are owned as pets or maintained in ill-equipped roadside zoos and traveling exhibits in the United States. Nobody knows for sure how many because no government agency tracks the animals." - Big Cat Rescue: Law Enforcement (Baskin, 2018a, “Background”, para. 1)
“The Humane Society of the United States estimates that there are as many as 10,000 large wildcats in private ownership across the country.” - The Wildcat Sanctuary: Captive Wildlife Laws (“Captive Wildlife Laws”, n.d., “What is the Captive Wildlife Crisis”, para. 2)
“In fact, an estimated 15,000 primates, 10,000-20,000 big cats, 13.3 million small mammals, and 9.3 million reptiles are owned in homes across the nation as ‘pets.’” - Born Free USA: Downloading Cruelty (Dylewsky, 2016)
“As of 2012, there are estimated 10,000-20,000 big cats in private hands – and they just keep breeding. These aren’t in zoos and accredited facilities, as you might think. Surprisingly, 95% of all tigers in the US are privately owned.” - The Wildcat Sanctuary: No More Wild Pets (“No More Wild Pets”, n.d., “Why are Wild Pets so Available”, para. 1)
“It is estimated that there are 10,000 to 20,000 big cats currently held in private ownership in the U.S., although the exact number remains a mystery.” - Fact Sheet: Big Cat Public Safety Act (Big Cat Rescue, n.d.)
“There is no possibility of determining the numbers of dangerous Exotic Big Cats being kept in private hands and what their condition is in the U. S.” - The Wildcat Sanctuary: Captive Wildlife Laws (Captive Wildlife Laws”, n.d., “Big Cats and Public Safety Act”)
“Some 10,000 to 20,000 big cats are kept captive by private owners in the U.S. The exact number is a mystery because there are insufficient record keeping requirements.” - International Fund for Animal Welfare: Big Cat Public Safety Act Fact Sheet (IFAW, 2016)
“The USDA doesn't make copies or keep those records. That means that there are more than 10,000 big cats out there that no authority is keeping close tabs on. Barylak, from IFAW, says that the 10,000 number is a conservative estimate.” - The International Fund for Animal Welfare, quoted in Business Insider (Loria, 2016)
“It’s also believed that there are between 10,000 to 20,000 privately owned big cats including tigers, lions and cougars currently living in captivity in the U.S., but the exact number is unknown due to insufficient record keeping.” Care2: There Are More Captive Tigers in Texas Than the Wild (Care2, 2013)
Baskin, C. (2018a, January 11). Law Enforcement. Retrieved December 15, 2018, from https://bigcatrescue.org/lawenforcement/
Baskin, C. (2018b, March 16). 2017 Annual Report. Retrieved December 23, 2018, from https://bigcatrescue.org/2017-annual-report/
Baskin, C. (2017, January 12). 2016 Annual Report. Retrieved December 23, 2018 from https://bigcatrescue.org/2016-annual-report/
Baskin, C. (2015, May 13). Why Isn’t Big Cat Rescue Rescuing More Big Cats? Retrieved December 23, 2018, from https://bigcatrescue.org/why-isnt-big-cat-rescue-rescuing-more-big-cats/
Big Cat Rescue. (2015, April 27) Help stop the abuse of animals. Retrieved May 16, 2018, from https://bigcatrescue.org/help-stop-the-abuse-of-animals/
Big Cat Rescue. (2018a, May 21). Circus Rey Gitano. Retrieved December 23, 2018, from https://bigcatrescue.org/circus-rey-gitano/
Big Cat Rescue. (2018b). Tell Congress to End Big Cat Abuse! Retrieved December 15, 2018, from http://bcr.p2a.co/mteo5Am
Big Cat Rescue. (n.d.). Fact Sheet: Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R.1818 / S.2990) (Publication). Retrieved December 15, 2018, from Big Cat Rescue website: https://bigcatrescue.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/HR1818-S2990-BCPSA-Factsheet-Final.pdf
Butzer, S. (2018, December 21). Keenesburg's Wild Animal Sanctuary takes in lion, tiger from Saipan zoo after typhoon. The Denver Channel. Retrieved December 23, 2018, from https://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/local-news/keenesburgs-wild-animal-sanctuary-takes-in-lion-tiger-from-saipan-zoo-after-typhoon
Brulliard, K. (2017, January 19). One problem with shutting down the circus: Where will the animals go? Washington Post. Retrieved December 23, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/animalia/wp/2017/01/19/one-problem-with-shutting-down-the-circus-where-will-the-animals-go/?utm_term=.562d943238b2
Captive Wildlife Safety Act, 2003, 16 USC 3371
Care2. (2013, March 19). There Are More Captive Tigers in Texas Than in the Wild. Retrieved December 23, 2018, from https://www.care2.com/causes/theres-more-captive-tigers-in-texas-than-in-the-wild.html
Chambers, K. (2017). 2016 Wild Feline Census. Retrieved December 14, 2018, from https://www.felineconservation.org/uploads/bltx_big_cats_by_species_and_type_of_facility_2016.pdf.
Culver, L. (2011). How many cats are in USDA licensed facilities in the US? (pp. 1-6). Feline Conservation Federation.
Dylewsky, K. (2016, October 28). DOWNLOADING CRUELTY: An Investigation into the Online Sales of Exotic Pets in the U.S. (Rep.). Retrieved December 15, 2018, from Born Free USA website: http://web.archive.org/web/20170710075405/http://466a221d5f0081643b32-e5fd6e4345ef06428c08a34c1e533de0.r4.cf1.rackcdn.com/ExoticPetReport_FINAL2e.pdf
Foran, C. (2014, August 28). Hollywood, the Circus, and Congress Are Fighting Over 'Tiger Selfies'. The Atlantic. Retrieved December 24, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/08/hollywood-the-circus-and-congress-are-fighting-over-tiger-selfies/443679/
Garner, R. (2018a, May 23). Media Claims About The Tiger Population In The United States Are Frequently Exaggerated. Retrieved December 23, 2018, from https://www.whyanimalsdothething.com/tiger-population-numbers-exaggerated/
Garner, R. (2018b, December 15). Big Cat Safety Issues In The United States: 2000 - 2018. Retrieved December 23, 2018, from whyanimalsdothething.com/big-cat-safety-issues-2000-2018
Glausiusz, J. (2008, February). Far From the Forests of the Night. Retrieved May 16, 2018, from http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/htmlsite/master.html?http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/htmlsite/0208/0208_feature2.html
International Fund for Animal Welfare. (2016). Big Cats Fact Sheet 2016 (Publication). Retrieved December 23, 2018, from International Fund for Animal Welfare website: https://s3.amazonaws.com/ifaw-pantheon/sites/default/files/legacy/Big-Cats-Fact-Sheet_2016.pdf
International Fund for Animal Welfare. (2018, March 2). Big cats – Predators under threat. Retrieved December 24, 2018, from https://www.ifaw.org/european-union/news/big-cats-–-predators-under-thre-0
Loria, K. (2016, March 17). Armed police freed 11 tigers, 3 lions, and 3 bears from captivity — and that was just the beginning. Business Insider. Retrieved December 23, 2018, from https://www.businessinsider.com/armed-police-freed-tigers-lions-and-bears-from-captivity-2016-3
Neme, L. (2014, December 1). Circus Lions Rescued in Peru, Headed for New Home in Colorado. National Geographic. Retrieved December 23, 2018, from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/11/141129-jan-creamer-animal-defenders-international-peru-bolivia-teapa-operation-lion-ark-colombia-wild-animal-sanctuary-operation-spirit-of-freedom/
Nyhus, P., Tilson, R., & Tomlinson, J. (2003). Dangerous animals in captivity: Ex situ tiger conflict and implications for private ownership of exotic animals. Zoo Biology, 22(6), 573-586. doi:10.1002/zoo.10117
Nyhus, P. J., Tilson, R., & Hutchins, M. (2010). Thirteen Thousand and Counting: How Growing Captive Tiger Populations Threaten Wild Tigers. In Tigers of the World (2nd ed., pp. 223-240). Elsevier.
Peters, C. (2017, December 22). 2 Big Cats Leave Omaha Zoo for Tampa Wildlife Sanctuary. Omaha World-Herald. Retrieved December 23, 2018, from https://www.omaha.com/living/zoo/big-cats-leave-omaha-zoo-for-tampa-wildlife-sanctuary/article_c95eb09e-e5c3-11e7-8a88-7fadd6c9c384.html
Pfaff, S., & Colahan, H. (2017, June 16). African Lion Regional Studbook. Retrieved December 14, 2018, from Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Schabner, D. (2005, February 24). Owner Blamed for Tiger's Tragic Fate. ABC News. Retrieved December 24, 2018, from https://abcnews.go.com/US/Science/story?id=524989&page=1
The Great Indian Tiger Factory. (2005). Indian Express. Retrieved May 16, 2018, from http://archive.indianexpress.com/oldStory/78785/
The Wildcat Sanctuary. (n.d.). Captive Wildlife Laws. Retrieved December 15, 2018, from https://www.wildcatsanctuary.org/education/captive-wildlife-laws/
The Wildcat Sanctuary. (n.d.). No More Wild Pets Campaign. Retrieved December 15, 2018, from https://www.wildcatsanctuary.org/appropriate-pets/
Tiger Species Survival Plan. (2018). Retrieved December 14, 2018, from http://support.mnzoo.org/tigercampaign/tiger-ssp/
Turpentine Creek. (2018, June). Current State Big Cat Laws. Retrieved December 23, 2018, from https://www.turpentinecreek.org/current-big-cat-laws/
USDA, APHIS (n.d.). Regulated Businesses (Licensing and Registration). Retrieved May 23, 2018, from https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalwelfare/ct_awa_regulated_businesses
Werner, B. (2005). Distribution, abundance and reproductive biology of captive Panthera Tigris populations living within the United States of America assessment. Feline Conservation Federation, 49(2), 24-25.
Whitaker, B. (2003, April 24). Many Dead Tigers Are Found At Big Cat 'Retirement Home'. New York Times. Retrieved December 24, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/24/us/many-dead-tigers-are-found-at-big-cat-retirement-home.html
Read More Articles from Why Animals Do The Thing:
Rachel is an educator and animal science writer. With prior professional experience in zookeeping, visitor education, shelter behavior management, and more, she works to translate pertinent field-specific knowledge into comprehensive explanations about current animal related topics.