The worldwide population of tigers has been devastated over the past century, dropping by a staggering 97%. Today, only about 3,200 tigers remain in the wild.
There is one place where tigers are thriving though: the United States. With roughly 5,000 tigers living in captivity, the U.S. has the single largest population of captive tigers in the world.
You might assume that most of these tigers are living in zoos or nature preserves, but that is simply not the case. According to the World Wildlife Federation,
“Only six percent of the US captive tiger population resides in zoos and other facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The rest are found in other private hands—some regulated by the US Department of Agriculture, some under state regulation, and some under virtually no regulation at all.”
According to the WWF, there are many jurisdictions within the U.S. where people can legally keep tigers as pets without letting local officials or even their neighbors know about it. The WWF says that the “lax management” of America’s captive tiger population poses a serious threat to public safety.
Back in 2011, a man from Zanesville, Ohio released dozens of exotic animals before taking his own life. Police were forced to shoot a total of 49 animals, including 19 Bengal tigers.
The lack of regulation is also helping to fuel a thriving black market for the exotic animals. Besides being bred and sold as pets, tigers are also prized for their body parts after they die.
There have been efforts in recent years to put controls on the private ownership and trade of tigers. The Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, introduced in 2013, would have put much stricter constraints on the private ownership of tigers, including a law against keeping them as pets. Unfortunately, the bill stalled out and died during the last Congress.
Last year, President Obama released the first ever National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. While it does not create any laws or regulations, it does make wildlife trafficking a top priority for a number of U.S. federal agencies.
Read more from the World Wildlife Federation.