By Riley Meese | Illustration by Jubilee Hernandez

Want to be in on the conversation of cub petting and big cat ownership without diving into the insane world of Joe Exotic and Tiger King? Well, to save you a day of binge watching, here’s the scoop.

In the world today there are only 3,900 wild tigers. However, in the U.S. alone, there are anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 captive tigers. No one knows the exact number due to the total lack of federal regulations around big cat ownership. Most of these tigers live in small “roadside” zoos that serve as cub petting attractions.

At first glance, cub petting seems like an innocent way to interact with the wildness of nature. But in reality, cub petting is a lucrative business that exploits tigers for capital gain. A quick photo op or five-minute cuddle runs between $10 and $100, while a three-hour tour of said zoo with cub handling can run up to $700 per person. Visitors to these roadside zoos believe they are taking part in an educational or conservational activity, without realizing the truth of the cubs’ past or future.

First, most of these cubs are born in tiger mills where females produce two to three litters a year, which starkly contrasts the natural cycle of one litter every two years. As soon as these cubs are born, they are torn away from their mothers to diminish their natural behaviors and increase the likelihood of bonding with humans.

During the cubs’ early few weeks of life, they are deprived of sleep and disciplined to reject their instinctual behaviors, in order to make them more manageable. Cubs’ fragile immune systems render them very susceptible to disease. Vaccinations are estimated to be ineffective until the cubs are 16 weeks old. However, most do not make it that long.

There is virtually no knowing what happens to the cubs once they reach their “expiration date.” At 12 weeks, the cubs are too big and dangerous for petting attractions and too expensive to keep alive for these roadside zoos. Since the cubs are not put on a census, the young tigers are invisible: they can be sold, given away, or, most commonly, killed. Therefore, a vicious cycle is created between breeding and getting rid of the cubs.

Cub petting exhibitors make false claims that tourists are helping conservation efforts. Cub petting does nothing to educate about conservation — instead, it instills in people the idea to regard these tigers as pets. During cub petting, people are focused on petting rather than taking a tour of a sanctuary and learning something about tigers.

Tigers bred in these captive zoos also have zero conservation value. The genetic makeup of these cubs is unknown, as they are of mixed subspecies and lineages. Therefore, they have no value in the gene pool to replace tigers in the wild. Once these cubs are bred in captivity, there is no place for them in the wild. A cub needs to be with its mother for at least two years to learn survival skills, which humans are incapable of duplicating. There has not been a single successful release of a captive born tiger or lion to date.

And if this article did not satisfy your need for twists, turns, and dramatic Oklahomans — feel free to binge watch “Tiger King,” as I am sure the majority of the U.S. population has done by now. Just remember, cub petting is bad!

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