White tigers: Tragic–not magic

KennytigerKathleen Stachowski   Other Nations

Kenny died in 2008. If you didn’t mark his passing (you probably didn’t even know about it), don’t feel bad. Kenny, you see, was not the beautiful white tiger on posters for glitzy magic acts. He wasn’t the star attraction drawing crowds of admirers to the zoo. As the product of unscrupulous white tiger breeding, Kenny’s life and death ran under the radar. It was only through the compassion of a wildlife refuge in Arkansas that he was able to live out his life in comfort and even found a modicum of fame (video)–one of the luckiest of the unlucky. He died at 10 years of age from cancer (source).  

Kenny’s parents were brother and sister, both carrying the recessive gene for whiteness. As a white tiger, Kenny inherited double recessive genes. His orange brother was also born with the problem that accompanies this genetic disposition–he was severely cross-eyed. In addition, manifestations of inbreeding include club feet, cleft palates, spinal and other structural issues–and facial deformities, among other maladies.

To be clear: white tigers are not a species or a subspecies. They’re not albino. They are genetic anomalies. Though rare, white Bengal tigers have, in the past, existed in nature; the last known free-ranging white tiger was shot in the 1950s, according to an article at Popular Science. Since that time, white tigers are the product of for-profit breeding programs and, making matters worse, many are hybrids of Bengal and Siberian (Amur) tigers. As inbred and crossbred animals, they have no conservation value, but that doesn’t stop many of those who capitalize on the white tiger cachet from jumping on the conservation bandwagon to legitimize the exploitation. Emphasizing this is a Slate.com science article, “Why White Tigers Should Go Extinct”:

A huge number of the captive tigers are hybrids of various subspecies and are so inbred that they will never be suitable for reintroduction to the wild. No tigers are more emblematic of this problem than white tigers.

Tigers in general are in dire straits. According to wild cat conservator Panthera, fewer than 3200 tigers remain in the wild today on less than 7% of their historic range. Three subspecies have gone extinct in the last 80 years. Tigers are red-listed for their high risk of global extinction; their population trend only continues to decline thanks to an illegal wildlife trade market, a depleted prey base, increasing conflicts with humans, and habitat fragmentation and destruction.

Ironically, as many as 10,000 captive-bred tigers live in U.S. cages–in zoos, backyards, circuses, hotels, roadside attractions, exotic animal mills, and anywhere else an ego can be stoked or a buck can be made:

There are as many as 20,000 privately owned cats in the U.S. and about half are tigers, according to groups like the World Wildlife Fund and the (Association of Zoos and Aquariums). …How the backyard population swelled while dwindling in nature is partly attributed to an unregulated industry, where a tiger cub can be bought for as little as $300 without any permit or registration.  ~New York Daily News.com


Siegfried and Roy – click image for credit and info

But white tiger cubs go for far more and are something of a special industry in the U.S. exotic animal market. According to numerous sources, the inbreeding of white tigers in the U.S. started when the first white cub was delivered in 1960 to Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo from India, the product of inbreeding herself. She was bred to an uncle, and white tiger production expanded from there with the Cincinnati Zoo (see “The White Tiger Fraud” at Big Cat Rescue) and Siegfried and Roy among the big players. Says Tigers in America“Breeders began the quest for not only white cubs but pure white cubs for their market value of $100,000. This inbreeding…continues today with their offspring because of the demand for white tiger cubs. They sell for $30,000.”

Given its secretive nature and lack of regulation, numbers are hard to pin down in the shadowy world of unscrupulous wildlife breeding. In researching this piece, I’ve repeatedly seen 80% used as the percentage of inbred animals stillborn*, while a high percentage of those born live die early from their defects–all in attempts to create marketable animals. Further, according to Crown Ridge Tiger Sanctuary,

Only 1 in 30 of the surviving white cubs will be suitable for display. So what happens to the excess orange and black cubs and the white cubs not suitable for display? The white cubs rarely end up in accredited facilities but end up being killed or sold to neglectful facilities. The outcomes for the orange and black cubs are not much better. Most end up being sold into the pet trade, becoming victims of canned hunts, or being killed and sold for parts in the Asian markets.

This squandering of sentient lives is what we support when we flock to zoos and glitzy shows featuring the magical white creatures who attract audiences and pay the bills. At a website defending the “conservation” of white tigers, charges of “animal racism” against those who object to their breeding are leveled on one page while, on another page, a zoo director is quoted saying, “We’re producing white tigers simply because they’re very popular with the public and they’ve helped us with the gas and light bill.” (Note: This website calls the Association of Zoos and Aquariums–the AZA–the “American Zoo Association” in error.)

In 2011 the AZA, an accrediting body,

banned member zoos from breeding white tigers, lions, and cheetahs (PDF). This ban should prevent top-tier zoos from continuing to breed white tigers, and the Cincinnati Zoo has recently stopped selling white tigers. But it doesn’t prevent member zoos from continuing to display the animals. And as long as there is demand, those top-tier zoos may still obtain white tigers from other sources. Meanwhile, the white-washing of white tigers by major institutions helps maintain not only ticket revenue from a misled public but also misguided support for the rescue of a nonexistent endangered species. Slate article

tigermagicA magic show will appear here in Western Montana in another week or so. One look at the ads and it’s apparent what the marketing focus is: two tiger sisters, one of them white (video). The “Dare to Believe!” show has booked a theater on the University of Montana campus for two performances, and, if the Shrine Circus–a campus event center staple–is any indication, people will throng to the spectacle. If they’re anything like the circus-goers, they won’t know (and likely won’t want to know) the sad facts behind the flashy performance with its awe-inspiring cats. They’ll think conservation has something to do with it, and not without cause: The ticketing service provider for UM offers this special: “VIP ‘Save the Wild Supporter’ ticket options are available for the first 9 rows. Proceeds from these tickets go to help save tigers and cheetahs from extinction through RareSpeciesFund.org.”  (Note that the Rare Species Fund supplies animals for entertainment, among other endeavors. Here’s another, less flattering view of the work they do.) 

Since we can’t count on the University of Montana to take a principled stand by refusing to book wild (or any) animal acts, we’ll just have to dare to believe that if people only knew about the discarded lives and suffering behind the creation of just one marketable white tiger–they’d stay away in droves…remembering Kenny as one of the luckiest of the unlucky.
*To emphasize the difficulty I had finding reliable information, I later came across this–and leave it to the reader to determine veracity: “It is not true that infant mortality in white tigers is 80%. This urban legend seems to have originated with opponents of white tigers. Poor husbandry, stressed mothers and feline infectious enteritis (for which a vaccine is now available) played a large part in white tiger cub mortality” (source).

  • Panthera, linked above, is a good and reliable source of info
  • Straightforward explanation of dominant and recessive genes
  • “Scientists find one gene responsible for all white tigers” here
  • “Diary of a White Tigress: Humorous look at growing up as a white tiger…Showing the true facts, without the Animal Rights propaganda.” A pro-exotic animal ownership video.
  • “Magician raises tigers, perfects illusions from small Montana town” (7/24/12) here

19 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on "OUR WORLD".

  2. Interesting, but I found another website that refute much of what you are saying here. http://www.allaboutwhitetigers.com It even had a list of all the AZA zoo’s that have the white tigers.

  3. Hi, Jeff. A couple of things. If you re-read the AZA paragraph in my post, you’ll see that it banned *breeding* white tigers –not displaying them. So there’s nothing inconsistent about the website you found listing the AZA accredited zoos that display white tigers (the “inventory” in the “zoo’s” as the site puts it).

    Then again, one of the pages at the site you provided is “The white tiger stud book” and while I don’t have the time to delve into it, it’s pretty clear that this is a website whose agenda is promoting the breeding of white tigers…so of course it will be in conflict with the sanctuaries and biologists who are against continued inbreeding. A link that your site recommends took me to the website for “Responsible exotic animal ownership”…I rest my case.

    The science is unequivocal. White tigers are NOT a subspecies in need of conservation; their pigmentation is affected by one recessive gene.

    I might also add that I, myself, in the original post above, linked to a website much like the one you provided–it refutes much of what my post contains–and I did it as an example of pro-breeding (for-profit) sites with their phony agenda of “conservation” as cover for the exploitation of animals who attract crowds of people–and their money.

    Thanks for commenting and giving me the opportunity to address the difference between websites promoting the “ownership” of exotic wild animals and their for-profit breeding and inbreeding vs. the scientific facts and the experiences of the sanctuaries that deal with all the discarded animals.

  4. I also found this very interesting link about India returning the white tiger back to the wild. They must really love their wildlife over there.

    On that other website it was so cool to read about how that one AZA zoo brought in a white tiger and the gate attendance went up 100%. I bet that made some conservation projects get funded and come true. Interesting reading. I think this might make a really good video debate. I know a few zoo keepers that might be willing to step up to the plate. Your thoughts ?

  5. First, I’ll point out these two paragraphs, from The Hindu article:

    “White tigers were first found in Rewa forest and because of that reason, locals are emotionally attached with these feline beauties,” said Chief Wildlife Warden H S Pabla.

    “Moreover, since they are the centre of attraction at zoos, we are planning to have this breeding centre in an area spread over 100 hectares,” he said.

    OK, so “locals are emotionally attached” and white tigers are a big draw at zoos. Both of these instances make the case for ignorance (people don’t understand the science behind white tigers) and the quest for profit. Plus, the article you cited is old; in a recent one (dateline New Delhi) the National Tiger Conservation Authority has refused to allow that breeding scheme to go forward, saying,

    “WII (Wildlife Institute of India) has already made it amply clear that the reintroduction of white tiger into natural habitat is not desirable as white tiger is not a separate sub-species of tiger but only an aberration of the Royal Bengal Tiger and hence it has no conservation value,” it said.

    Read more at: http://www.firstpost.com/india/ntca-says-no-to-reintroduction-of-white-tigers-in-madhya-pradesh-1301091.html?utm_source=ref_article

    While a few zoos have contributed to conservation efforts (condors, black-footed ferrets, e.g.) the vast majority of captive breeding programs simply make money off of captive animals. And keeping captive populations in zoos does nothing to conserve the critical habitat they need should they ever be in a position to be released. You won’t find many defenders of zoo exploitation at this blog, Jeff. And using exploited species like white tigers to bolster gate receipts (no matter what the motivation) is wrong.

  6. Interesting points. However the National Tiger Conservation Authority is one of many that will have input over there. I think that it will be interesting on what the finial outcome will be.

    While further researching your blog and other exploits, I also discovered a very recent report, (just last year), where a detailed scientific research project under Texas A&M, revealed that the large pool of white tigers they tested through DNA showed no relationship connections, at all.

    Now that you got me really interested, I did contact some professional AZA zoo keepers that have been working with white tigers for years. I ran the idea by them about a video debate with you, and they were more than willing. How about it? I will be more than happy to arrange it.

  7. Jeff, I’m not a geneticist and am assuming that you aren’t either (you can correct me if that’s wrong), but I’m skeptical of the sweeping statement you made about “no relationship connections, at all” (not even sure what relationship you’re referring to). I suggest you peruse this peer reviewed research that appeared in the Current Biology journal…
    (I believe the one you linked to was a student’s project.)

    At any rate, both sets of researchers acknowledged the ill effects of inbreeding. The peer reviewed research is discussed in layman’s terms at the Popular Science article I referenced twice in my post

    As for the offer of a debate with zoo keepers, thanks, but I decline.

  8. Kathleen, I can understand not being a geneticist would leave you skeptical. Just as I am not a reporter, columnist or blogger, I am very skeptical when I hear you quote:

    ” While a few zoos have contributed to conservation efforts (condors, black-footed ferrets, e.g.) the vast majority of captive breeding programs simply make money off of captive animals.”

    My skeptical-flag gets raised on this one. Where in the world did you come up with that stat? I would be very interested in seeing some sort of scientific research or non-bias survey on that one.

    As far as captive breeding and conservation, you might enjoy this one:

    Captive tigers ‘may save species’

    As far as the previous cited article being from a “student”, the pure fact that the supervision and controlled lab testing, and the simple fact that DNA can’t lie,…no mater who takes the sample or reports it. I think it would be on the same scale that just because a reporter is not a Pulitzer Prize winner, or a 30 year reporter for a national network does not necessarily disprove physical evidence of a finding.

  9. Let’s go and save tigers!

  10. Great article. As far as the preceding debate between Jeff Neally & Kathleen, it comes down to this, for me: white tigers may happen occasionally in nature, but they’re anomalies. Other than their unusual beauty, they are of little value, and certainly not worth the effort of engineering considering the overwhelming percentage of physical deformities most will suffer from. Yes, I consider it a moral issue. Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should.

  11. “Overwhelming percentage of physical deformities” ? I would like to see the “overwhelming” stats, and not just some made number. The white tiger breeding has come a long, long way since the early idiots were involved. As far as “of little value”, what about the Blank Park Zoo, (a non-profit AZA zoo) who had a white tiger visit for a summer and the attendance increased 110%. No value !? Just how many animals did that help feed and care for, how many programs did it fund, or even if it helped a non-profit zoo a little more in a tough time. No value my foot! I would disagree completely, as well as many of my friends who are actual zoo keepers in such zoo’s.

    Again, I offer a suggestion of an actual video debate on this topic. I have some zoo friends that are very enthusiast about participating.

    As I quote:

    “The white tiger should be viewed as a gift of Nature. It’s conservation is as important as that of the normal tiger”. [p. 386, Tigers of the World: the biology, biopolitics, management and conservation. Tilson/Ulysses]

  12. Jeff, after reading all your posts, it’s obvious you wouldn’t care if I came up with a ZILLION articles proving the screwed up issues crossbreeding produces in creating Ligers, White Tigers, or Bears (Oh My :P) You also totally dismiss the suffering of the animal (yeah, I know — you’re gonna debate that, too) in how you equate value to a zoo. You and your little friends can harp all you want; morally, this kind of crossbreeding is Trash Science at the expense of the animal’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being. No 110% increase in attendance is worth that.

    For the record, I’m a lay person with just a lifelong love and interest in big cats. I do, however, have 3 veterinary friends who I enjoy learning from, and they have a fascinating and wide wealth of lab and “real world” experience among them. I’ll throw out your challenge to them; in truth, I think it would be an interesting kerfuffle xD

  13. That’s my point, (Thank you!). The “lay person” is not equipped with the professional knowledge to completely understand the true and correct facts concerning such an animal. Your knowledge might benefit if you were to read the complete detailed report on white tigers from actual highly educated zoo professionals with decades of experience, http://allaboutwhitetigers.com/1673.html

    This is one of many good reports that unlike others have no backing of references. This report has over 100. I am exited to hear you will pass this on to your vet friends. An actual zoo veterinarian is one that is eager to participate. No one would be a winner or looser, and I am sure much would be learned.

  14. And again, you miss mine: despite being a lay person, that does not make me uneducated. I am perfectly capable of finding reputable, fact-based reports about the topic by people in animal husbandry and the associated sciences, and understand what I read, as well as the author’s stated summary conclusions. Just as you would have no interest in my suggestions, I’ll pass on yours.

  15. That is exactly why I think face to face and video debates are so useful. I believe that facts are more clear and easier to understand, and harder to distort, which can often be the case in single sided text messages or emails. Let me know what your vet friends say, we are all ready on this side. I think we can all learn more.

  16. A recent article from India, where the last white tiger cub at the Delhi Zoo is struggling for survival…

    Excerpt: “The rigorous inbreeding … mating fathers with daughters and granddaughters – has invited much criticism from tiger conservationists, who say the exercise is an economics-driven charade to draw more people to zoos at the cost of the animals’ health.
    They contest zoo owners’ claims that the ‘unnatural’ mating process is the only way to preserve a species on the verge of extinction.
    “The white tiger is not a species,” Menon said, “propagation of white tigers is a purely captive function, probably driven by popular attraction to the colour of the coat.” ”


  17. I would completely agree with that. Those third world countries are so far behind the times, abilities, education and animal husbandry practices, I am not surprised.

  18. It’s a shame what humans are doing to the ecosystem. Humans shouldn’t interfere with God’s creation.

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