Why We Do It!
If we are to keep
the great cats in
captivity, it is our
provide the most
and the utmost in care
that we are capable
All big cat facilities are different. They are run by people and people, by nature, have different approaches on how to go about things. Some people feel that the cats should never be touched by the human hand, that they should remain as close to wild as possible.
At the other end, some people feel that the cats should be trained to perform tricks, do a job every day, and fear their master. And there is an opinion for everything in between.
Some people feel that cats should not be kept in captivity at all, that the species should become extinct rather than being "caged" by humans.
Our philosophy is likely different from others, but it works for us and we do continue to learn every day.
One thing we do feel strongly about: A sanctuary must be a safe place for the cats, and a permanent home. If we rescued cats then later sold them, loaned them, or even gave them to others then Tiger Haven would not be a sanctuary.
A sanctuary does not breed cats just to have cubs that will draw more paid visitors who want their pictures made with them. A sanctuary should not take a cat temporarily, accept the praise for the rescue, then find someone else to shoulder the permanent responsibility. This we feel strongly about.
Keeping Cats in Captivity
Obviously, we feel that cats can be kept in captive situations and still be happy and content. One reason our great cats are becoming extinct is that they have no place to live.
There are few cats in this country that were wild caught. Most were born in this country, in captivity. If released in the wild they would likely starve because they do not know how to hunt (or, more importantly, what is appropriate to hunt). Many are de-clawed and could not catch their prey. We do not like the alternative, so we will continue in our efforts to give them peace and contentment in their captive situations.
Touching the Cats
We believe in touching the cats. And rubbing their bellies and hugging their necks.
We believe in one-hundred percent interaction with any cat who wants it. Some of our cats are content to be left alone with their mates or friends. Some come from unknown backgrounds and are friendly at the fence, and that is enough for them. We do not force ourselves upon them.
Most of the cats at Tiger Haven want love and affection from their human friends. Nothing will love you like a lion. They are even jealous of any attention you give to other humans and animals. And tigers will moan and whine, while rubbing the fence closest to you, until you give them attention.
As long as the big cats depend on us for their food they will never be wild. Maybe not tame either, but we must not fool ourselves by thinking that if we do not touch them, if we do not let them develop affections for us and us for them, that they will be like wild caught cats.
If we cannot give them the wild, we must fill that void with something else they want. We think that something is affection. We know they want affection, and many want interaction with us. We will not deprive them of something they want that we can give to them.
Many of the cats at Tiger Haven were raised, at least in the first few months of their life, as pets and had become accustomed to handling and affection, so they want and expect it. As such, we give it to them.
Touching and handling the cats is part of the Tiger Haven philosophy. We are not suggesting that anyone else should do what we do, nor are we saying that no one else should. It is just part of our philosophy.
No creature who has boundless energy should ever be forced to stay inside a cage where it cannot exercise. Enclosures should be large enough for the cats to run. Even adult cats like to run and play. There should be enough space that the cat has a feeling of a "territory" that belongs to him. It should provide a view beyond the enclosure. It should have access to water for the cats who like to play in water.
The cats' enclosures are their homes for life. It should be as interesting and comfortable as possible while providing items for curiosity and challenge.
Most of the enclosures at Tiger Haven fit this description, and new enclosures are constantly being constructed. The enclosures must also be safe, both for the cats and people. An escape anywhere is rare, but it is usually the cat who is killed or injured rather than a person.
All enclosures for climbing cats should have tops but still things to climb. All enclosures should have double gate entries for safety. Our entire sanctuary is surrounded by an eight-foot perimeter fence. Incidentally, Tiger Haven has never had an escape.
It should never be done. It is cruel and useless at best and it provides a false sense of security. Properly handled tigers and lions do not use their claws on their people after they are a few months old. Should they ever become aggressive enough a tiger or lion can hold and kill a person without using claws.
Climbing cats - leopards and cougars - use their claws to climb, and their enclosures should have climbing materials in them. Without claws they run the risk of injuring themselves in a fall. Without claws a cat will never have the satisfaction of sharpening them on a log or tree, and cannot even scratch behind their ears.
If we must mutilate the cats in order to touch them or have pictures made with them, we are missing the point somewhere. I would suggest that if one must de-claw a cat that they pull out their own fingernails first to see how they get along without them. Then try to scratch an itch.
Some institutions are strictly against training cats for any reason. But even they have their cats trained to a certain extent. When the cats' food is brought to the den, they come to eat. They are then locked in their den while the keepers clean the enclosures. This is a perfect example of the reward training method.
If cats are to be handled, they must be trained not to play with people the same as they play with each other. If a cat struck or bit us the same as they would another cat in play, we would not last very long. They must be taught that our skin is like tissue paper compared to theirs.
Space does not allow us to go into our training methods completely, but we have found that it can be done without harsh measures if your relationship with the cats is based upon mutual trust and respect.
You must respect the cats' abilities but not be afraid of their capabilities. You must never make the cat fear you. And harsh training does just that. At Tiger Haven we never use punishment or painful training methods. We only use rewards and positive reinforcement.
Since we do not allow contact with our cats by the general public our level of training is different than that used for animals that are used for film, advertising and as handling toys to raise money. But even then we feel that if a cat must be mistreated in order to make it do something, then that something should not be done.
PerformingIf a cat enjoys performing, and many do, and if the performance is based upon something the cat does naturally, it is a great way to educate people and provide an active and stimulating environment for the cat.
For example, Apata, a Bengal tiger, naturally loves to leap high into the air and come down on my back (without knocking me to the ground). It is an incredible performance, and to teach a tiger to do that without hurting someone would be very difficult. But Apata does it naturally.Unfortunately, performing often dictates that the cats be kept in small enclosures and kept on the road a lot. Even still, it is possible to ensure that the cats get enough
exercise and some trainers do that.
Because of the looming extinction of the big cats in the wild, breeding to perpetuate the species must be done in captivity if the species is to survive. But it should not be done simply to create more cats. It should not be done just so the public will pay to see and/or pet the babies.
Many of the big cats, especially lions and tigers, breed as easily as house cats. Contrary to what many would have us believe, there is no trick to producing a white tiger. All you have to do is introduce two tigers with the right genes - there are plenty of them - and it will happen.
Responsible breeding involves making sure that the parentage of both cats is known to prevent the possibility of inbreeding and over representing any particular bloodline. This is currently being accomplished by the Species Survival Plan, which is managed by the AZA zoos.
The mission of Tiger Haven does not involve breeding. We cannot be sure of the backgrounds of most of our cats, nor if there are any genetic deficiencies.
We cannot guarantee there will be enough funding to sustain them for the duration of their natural lives, and cubs would take the space for other cats that could be rescued.
We prevent breeding in several ways. Obviously if there are only males or females in the same enclosure there is not a problem.
We do not like to spay the females because it is a major and risky operation for the big cats. We neuter the males, as it is a simpler procedure. However, we do not neuter the lions. If a male lion is neutered, their mane will fall out (due to the loss of male hormones), so they get vasectomies instead.
We do not sell our cats. When you sell a cat how would we know it will be taken care of for the rest of its life? Even if the cat goes to the perfect home, how do we know it will not be sold again, and into a bad situation?
Cats are intelligent animals with logical thinking and emotions. Is it morally right to sell such a being? We do not want to make that decision.