There is so much for us to learn from International Tiger Day that doesn't even have to do with tigers.
Confession time: I was one of the 34 million people who binged the Netflix docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness when the world entered its honeymoon phase of quarantine. In this new and unknown territory, bunkering in with my husband and kids to watch this train-wreck was a welcome distraction for sure. But more importantly, it was disturbing and disappointing to witness how this community of people used and abused these animals for their own profit.
Why am I bringing attention to this?
Because today is International Tiger Day, an annual celebration that started ten years ago at the Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit to raise awareness about big cat conservation and promote the protection of its natural habitat, which, by the way is NOT Mike Tyson’s Nevada mansion outside of Las Vegas.
Scene from the 2009 film, The Hangover
With all that is happening in the world these days, I feel it's important to draw a parallel to International Tiger Day; science exists to educate and needs to be respected.
For those of you who don’t remember your elementary school tiger facts, these apex predators serve a crucial role in our ecosystem. By maintaining the population of wild ungulates (hoofed animals like deer and boar), tigers are key for the delicate balance between prey herbivores and the vegetation they eat. Should these breathtakingly powerful animals cease to exist, so, too, would our ecosystem.
Here’s a not-so uplifting fact; in the last one hundred years, we’ve lost about 95% of the world’s wild tiger population; it’s gone from 100,000 to about 3,900. Most of these beautiful black and orange creatures currently roam around the rainforests, savannahs, grasslands and swamps of Southeast Asia, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Russia and China.
Tigers also spend most of their time living the single life and don’t appreciate being confined to small spaces (sounds like most of the guys my unmarried girlfriends keep going after). It takes approximately 10,000 hectares of forest to conserve just one tiger. Think about that the next time you visit your local zoo as you ogle over their captive cats.
Tigers chilling at The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, CO
Rising human encroachment such as road building, deforestation, and illegal poaching and the trade of tiger skins and bones are all to blame for this downward spiral of tiger life.
It’s common, as with any massive global issue, to feel like any singular action you do can’t really make a difference. But, here are four easy ways you can start helping now:
1. Reduce and eliminate products containing palm oil. Did you know that about 50% of all household and personal care products contain palm oil? There’s a good chance your shampoo, lipstick and even your favorite chocolate hazelnut spread is hiding it. The destructive palm oil industry relies on relentless land clearing (aka, buh-bye tiger habitats) to pump out this cheap oil that’s used for everything from soap to packaged bread.
2. Make sure your morning cup of coffee is sustainably sourced. Coffee bean crops makes up a large part of the agricultural industry responsible for 80% of tropical deforestation.
3. Opt for recycled tissue paper and FSC-certified (Forest Certified Stewardship) paper products. Those rainforests that so many tigers call home keep perishing for consumers’ needs of cheap, toilet paper and other paper goods.
4. Don’t be a Joe Exotic and get caught up in the illegal exotic animal trade, or purchase any questionable animal products, which just perpetuates this nasty cycle. As you know, it didn’t end well for Joe.
Promotional artwork from Tiger King
But thanks to The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, thirty-nine tigers from Joe Exotic’s zoo were rescued toward the end of 2017 and are now living a life of luxury.
Originally malnourished, in distress and suffering from severe dental issues, many of the tigers were also found declawed and endured Metabolic Bone Disease. All of them had lived their entire lives in tiny cages were overcrowded and lacked any type of enrichment.
Upon rescue, Fireball, Pearl, Enzo and all the others were given a health check and evaluated for any other outstanding issues, and then began a systematic program to help bolster their confidence in larger spaces, as well as develop social skills with other cats so they could eventually live in a large acreage habitat with others of their own kind. After the first 8 weeks, nearly every animal had completed their rehabilitation and was living in a large natural habitat. All of the animals gained weight – both through improved nutrition and also through increased muscle mass from running and playing. Their new-found freedom was the number one factor in providing them with joy, as each tiger was finally able to roam freely and enjoy the company of others in amazingly large natural spaces.
Two tigers discussing the morning news at The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, CO
In contrast to when they arrived, all of them are now at optimal weight and their coats are smooth and glossy, while exhibiting the healthy confidence their species do when treated with respect and dignity.
How‘s that for a Where Are They Now story?
The Wild Animal Sanctuary, located just 30 minutes outside of Denver, is the largest and oldest accredited non-profit sanctuary for large carnivores in the western hemisphere. Founded in 1980 by Patrick Craig when he was just 19 years old, Pat is now considered to be one of the foremost experts in large carnivore rescue and big cat behavior. He has spent his life dedicated to fighting the illegal exotic animal trade, and along with his team, he has rescued over 1,000 tigers, bears, wolves, lions and other large carnivores from people's backyards, basements, apartments, garages, roadside zoos and other terrible places.
“Every day, we deal with insane people like Joe Exotic,” says Craig. “People have spat in our faces, drawn guns, and screamed at us. They’ve hidden animals and tried to relocate them so we wouldn’t be able to rescue them. In forty years, we’ve seen it all. But we keep going because of the animals. Everything we do is for them. Animals are here with us, not for us.”
Talk about real life superhero, Craig is as heroic as you can get. I can only hope that Netflix's next animal documentary focuses on his good deeds instead of exploiting the misdoings of yet another criminal. If there's anything to learn from International Tiger Day and the work Craig and his team does, it's that to keep all of our beautiful lives moving in the right direction on this planet, science cannot be ignored.