Through the Tiger Project, the Highland Hundred is doing its part to help address a largely unknown problem that exists in America: the plight of indigent Tigers.
The exotic animal industry in America, particularly as related to big cats, is comprised of two very different groups of people. On one side are the reputable, licensed sanctuaries that provide a healthy, safe, and comfortable home for their animals and educational opportunities for the public. On the other side are breeders, for-profit handlers, roadside attractions, and individuals who believe it is a good idea to keep these animals as pets. Unfortunately, these people represent the largest component of the industry, as much as 75% by some estimates. While many of these operations are illegal, enforcement of the laws is often ignored, especially in certain states where regulation is thin. These activities have resulted in a huge population of Tigers in America, far more than are living wild in the world.
This leads to an obvious question: Since Tigers are an Endangered Species, is't having more of them a good thing? The answer is not so simple. If the question was pointed towards increasing the Tiger population in their native habitats, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" But if the discussion is about increasing the number of captive animals in America, the answer is a definitive "No." If everyone involved in the big cat industry was focused on the well-being of the animals, this would not be a problem. Unfortunately, many of these people are instead motivated by profit or prestige.
When a Tiger is a baby, one can generate a tremendous amount of income with the animal through photography, petting zoos, special event appearances, and the like. It is extremely stressful to the animal to subject them to such duty, but the individuals who are engaging in these practices are not animal-focused, so this is not a concern for them; they will exploit the animal to its full potential. The problem arises when the Tiger grows more powerful and begins to threaten injury. Since a dangerous animal is no longer useful as a "prop", and since the owner more than likely does not have an appropriate facility to house an adult Tiger anyway, that animal will become indigent. This same outcome is also attributable to irresponsible individuals who believe a Tiger would make a good "pet", and quickly discover that they are incapable of caring for it.
What becomes of the indigent Tigers? Even if resources were available to return them to their natural habitats, captive-born Tigers cannot be released to the wild.
If they are lucky, they will be placed in a reputable sanctuary, but sanctuary space is a finite thing…there are only so many facilities across the nation, and their resources can only care for so many animals. As a result, many Tigers are not so lucky, and they are euthanized. No accurate records are kept, but it is estimated that hundreds of Tigers are euthanized each year, perhaps even more. And all the while, the illicit breeders are turning out new baby Tigers to sell to the very people who create the indigent Tiger problem. It is a perpetually vicious cycle.
What does this have to do with TOM III? TOM III was born at the Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue and Educational Center in Rock Springs, Wisconsin, a facility that epitomizes what an animal-focused sanctuary should be. The operators of this facility of roughly 30 cats try diligently to NOT create new baby Tigers. Since surgery is always used as a last resort, TOM III's mother had been on birth control…it was only through a failure of this medication that TOM III and his two brothers were born (TOM III's father has now been "fixed" to avoid any future surprises). TOM III did NOT come from a breeder who deliberately intended to increase the Tiger population. Wisconsin Big Cats offered their young Tiger free of charge to serve as TOM III because they knew that he would be provided for in a licensed, animal-focused facility that would give him loving care. TOM III's brothers still reside at Wisconsin Big Cats, and that facility has never sold one of their animals.
But TOM III's move to Memphis also serves a larger plan…by moving TOM III to our single-animal sanctuary and protecting him as the majestic animal he is, we have opened a space at Wisconsin Big Cats that may allow them to take on an indigent Tiger that needs a good home. As a result, the life of one more Tiger, an animal that has done nothing except have the bad luck of possession by the wrong person, may be spared.
TOM III serves as our University mascot, and his presence is always a source of pride for Tiger Fans. But the Highland Hundred Tiger Project is about much more than simply providing a mascot to the fans; it is also about doing our small part to address a large but largely unnoticed problem that plagues these beautiful creatures.
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