A photo of two tigers in a cage at a county fair steated on tall chairs performing tricks

Doing It Old-style was Highly Commended in the 2020 Wildlife Photojournalist Story Award © Steve Winter

These captive tigers were made to walk high wires, leap in unison and jump through fire hoops at an old-fashioned circus at Ohio's Crawford County Fair.

 

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Is the USA on the cusp of banning tiger tourism?

From inside the scandalous world of Netflix's Tiger King, to the front-line fight to save Thailand's tiger temple inhabitants, wildlife photographer Steve Winter has worked with big cats in captivity around the world. 

Steve's portfolio, The Tiger Next Door, was highly commended in the fifty-sixth Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. His images document the harrowing lives of tigers in captivity in the United States and illustrates the dire need for regulations to control this activity. 

Having worked as a National Geographic contributing photographer for many years, Steve's first experience of documenting cats in captivity came when he and his partner Sharon Guynup exposed the animal rights abuses that occurred at the Tiger Temple in Thailand. Their words, seven minute video and photos provoked a groundswell of support amongst the Thai and international community and eventually led to the closure of the temple and the rescue of the tigers by the Thai government.

The success of their venture led Steve and Sharon to focus a little closer to home and to work on exposing the wild animal parks and big cat shows that operate in the United States. 

A photo of four people posing with three tigers under water

Doc Antel and his staff pose with three adult tigers in a pool. Doc has funded lobbying against legislation like the proposed Big Cat Public Safety Act.

Made famous by the Netflix series, Tiger King, tiger tourism is an incredibly lucrative industry in the United States which profits from the exploitation of captive big cats. 

For a price, visitors to the numerous wild animal parks and touring fairs across the states can pet tiger cubs, have their photos taken with these animals, and watch them perform tricks and shows.  

In order to support this profitable industry, tigers are kept in captivity for their entire lives, traded like commodities and forced to perform to crowds of tourists. Unnatural and enforced breeding sees cubs torn away from their mothers at birth and adult tigers murdered to make way for breeding age females. 

The trade and exploitation of these animals is driven by demand - people are willing to pay for these experiences - and without regulation, owners are more than happy to profit from it.  

Under the guise of conservation

The sad reality is that many people who visit these places don't understand the full extent of what goes into their big cat experience, in fact many people believe that these parks are working towards tiger conservation. For Steve, this is one of the key challenges to ending big cat tourism in the US.  

'I think one of the biggest problems is that they try to get people to think that conservation is a part of this,' he says, 'Even when I went into the Thai Tiger Temple the first time there was this big sign as you walked in which read 'Conservation of tigers'. 

A photo of staff at a wild animal park preparing for a photo with two tigers

Staff at South Carolina's Myrtle Beach Safari manoeuvre two tigers into position for a photoshoot. They have garnered a large social media following and are known for selectively breeds tigers for the colour of their fur – a practice known to cause congenital defects.

'A lot of the US parks have non-profit status because they're supposedly giving some of their funds to the conservation of wild tigers,' Steve says. However further investigation shows that the money that is donated annually is just a fraction of their daily income. 

'Say they made $50,000 on one day - which we saw - if he gave $5,000 dollars in a whole year to tiger conservation, that's 10% of his take in one day and that's his conservation.' 

In reality, these parks are paying a small price to maintain their non-profit status which keeps their visitors happy. 

'The education is so important, because some people who visit think, "it's so expensive to get in here but at least we're saving tigers," No you're not! You're doing the exact opposite!' Steve says.

'They say they're involved in conservation so people think that these tigers will go back to the wild but no, no captive bred tiger has ever successfully been released into the wild, and surely not one that was born in Oklahoma.'

The sad reality of cub petting

One of the most distressing elements of tiger tourism in the US is the practice of cub petting. While it may sound innocent enough, simply paying to spend time with a baby tiger, the experience actually reinforces an intricate system of animal abuses. 

Because cub petting is so profitable, many park owners breed their big cats at an accelerated rate. So where a wild adult tiger might have one litter in two years these captive cats are being forced to have two or three litters a year. 

A photo of a family feeding a tiger cub with a bottle

This family likely paid hundreds of dollars for the opportunity to feed a tiger cub. This cub's owner was previously banned from exhibiting animals after a person was killed by tigers in his care.

Steve says, 'It's set up like a business, these tigers, instead of being the most majestic creature on the planet, became objects, like cuddly little stuffed animals, because they're all bred for cub petting.'

Once the cubs are born, they are generally taken away from their mother immediately so there is no time for maternal bonding. Once the cubs are over 8 weeks of age, as determined by the US Department of Agriculture, they are allowed to be petted and handled by the public until they reach 16 weeks of age when they become too big. 

'What happens to these cubs when they're too big to pet?' Steve asks. 

'If you think about the timeline,' he goes on, 'If a cub can only be petted between eight weeks old and 16 weeks old and you're open 12 months a year, how many sets of cubs do you need to satisfy that amount of tourism?' 

A photo of a a tiger and a lion cross

A six-month-old cross between a tiger and a lion, Gir was rescued by Tiger Haven, Tennessee, upon becoming too big for petting.

Sadly, for many of the profit hungry breeders and owners of wild animal parks, once a cub goes beyond 16 weeks of age, they are no longer worth keeping. This disposability fuels a black-market trade in live big cats for roadside zoos and pseudo-sanctuaries as well as for their body parts.

This shocking truth was brought home during the trial of Joe Exotic, self-proclaimed Tiger King, when it became clear that he had killed five adult tigers to make room for breeding females.

Steve was granted permission by the undercover US Fish and Wildlife agents to photograph the skulls which became a hugely important part of the trial that put Joe in prison for 22 years.

US Fish and Wildlife agents stand behind the skulls of five adult tigers killed by Joe Exotic.

US Fish and Wildlife agents stand behind the skulls of five adult tigers killed by Joe Exotic.

'Tiger King was a huge plus for this issue.' Steve says. 'Not in the beginning, people were so excited about the tiger cubs that they were flooding to Joe Exotic's former zoo and Doc Antel's zoo, there were long lines. But things changed as more and more information came out.'

'When it's out in front of the public it can really make a difference and create change which is what we want - stories that actually have a positive impact.'

'We won't have any credibility on the international stage until the problem here is rectified. We need some kind of federal law that oversees all of the tigers in captivity in the US and would disallow public contact with cubs to stop the horrific practice of cub petting.'

A forever home

So, what is the solution? Alongside regulation of ownership and human interaction, Steve believes that a big part of the solution is the real sanctuaries which exist to care for big cats after they leave places like Joe Exotic's wild animal park. 

One of Steve's images from Wildlife Photographer of the Year shows three tigers relaxing in a stock tank. 'They came from Joe Exotic', Steve says, 'When he went on the run he wanted to get rid of all of his big cats and so he called the Wild Animal Sanctuary north of Denver, Colorado where they have about 10,000 acres.'

Three tigers relax with a metal tub filled with water in an open landscape

Clay, Daniel and Enzo cool off at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado – one of a number of rescue centres.

'They took 39 of Joe's tigers and lions to their forever home where they have no public contact at all.'

The sanctuaries, which don't allow any hands-on contact with the public, offer vet care, proper nutrition, and a place for tigers and lions, and increasingly bear cubs, to live out their days in peace. 

'As Pat Craig who started the Wild Animal Sanctuary 40 or 50 years ago said,' Steve recalls, 'We want to get put out of business.'

Finally, it seems as though things are going that way, and Steve's photographs have been a big part of that.  

'National Geographic sent every member of congress the December issue which had this story in it,' Steve tells me, 'We heard from numerous government agencies including the department of justice, and the others that the story made a big difference.'

'Now the Big Cat Public Safety Act which would restrict any hands-on cub petting, cub breeding, private ownership, many different things, has passed the house, and it's in the new senate, it's one of the only bi-partisan bills in the US congress because people love and care about big cats.'

'So, in the end this story did something to bring forward what people didn't know, that there's more tigers in the United States than in the wild - and we need to do something to fix this.'

'We need to give them back the wild and understand that they need more space. We need to protect nature and get back to the idea that the planet is a living being and it gives us all life.'