Kathleen 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
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
A 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