By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor
The eccentric and prolific wildlife breeder and dealer known as “Joe Exotic” was just sentenced to 22 years in prison. Joe Maldonado-Passage (pictured below) was convicted in April on two counts of murder-for-hire—he’d plotted to kill a wildlife sanctuary founder who had been critical of him—and 17 wildlife charges, including the slaying of five tigers. Joe Exotic featured prominently in an investigation of captive tigers in the U.S. by Nat Geo journalists Sharon Guynup and Steve Winter.
Did you know there are more tigers living in captivity in the United States alone than remain in the wild? A few are in accredited zoos and sanctuaries. Many more are pets, or attractions at roadside zoos or breeders at facilities where the public can go pet them and cuddle their cubs.
As our investigation showed, this is a problem for both the tigers—many are neglected, abused, and exploited—and for humans. No matter how tame they may seem at times, they’re still wild animals. Many are killed or abandoned once they become too dangerous to pet. (Remember the 2011 Zanesville massacre? Forty-eight exotic animals were killed by Ohio authorities after their owner freed them and killed himself.)
In the case of Joe Exotic’s mistreated menagerie, these captive tigers won’t, and can’t, ever be released into the wild. They, like most captive tigers in the U.S., serve no conservation purpose whatsoever.
As an animal lover, I’d love to nuzzle a baby tiger. Who wouldn’t? And there are many opportunities, both in the U.S. and abroad, to do it. But once you know how this industry works behind the scenes, I promise—you’re going to think twice before handing over your money.
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Today in a minute
His job is done: Diego, the tortoise credited with siring 40 percent of a once-threatened Galápagos giant tortoise population, is finally retiring, to great notice (he was even the subject of a question on last weekend’s Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me! game show.) Not to take anything away from the aggressive, relentlessly mating 100-plus-year-old male, but a less-charismatic, more-reserved male named E5 is responsible for 60 percent of the booming tortoise population. “It clearly is the other quieter male that has had much more success,” biologist James P. Gibbs told The New York Times. “Maybe he prefers to mate more at night.”
Is there a price for killing racehorses? Three horses died in as many days last weekend at the Santa Anita racetrack in California, Nat Geo’s Rachel Fobar reports. Some 500 racehorses died in 2018 alone, some from injuries sustained during longer racing seasons, or from performance-enhancing drugs. It’s been nearly a year since bipartisan members of Congress proposed a national drug-testing agency in horse racing, but the bill has not moved. We’ll have more on this in coming weeks.
Dogs are smart: Even if they don’t have owners, stray dogs follow human signals, researchers say. The study, in India, shows the effects of 15,000 years of domestication, even if the dogs run free. Researchers said that 80 percent of the animals that approached a human who had food chose the direction the human indicated, Liz Langley reports for Nat Geo.
Are dogs more equal than others? A proposed rule would allow airlines to refuse animals other than dogs as emotional support animals and tighten qualifications among the canines. U.S. Department of Transportation officials said Wednesday that they also are proposing limiting service animals to two per person and making them check in an hour before the flight, USA Today reported.
Your Instagram photo of the day
Night shift: In search of ants and termites, a #pangolin is seen here moving through sparse grass at twilight on the sandy dunes of the Kalahari Desert. Pangolins are generally nocturnal, preferring to forage under the cover of darkness, especially during the warmer months. They are sadly among the most trafficked animals on the planet, sold on the black market primarily for their #keratin scales—the substance that makes up rhino horn and human fingernails. “It's a sad and ignorance-driven consequence,” says photographer Keith Ladzinski, "for such a remarkable creature."
Related: Pangolins poached for scales used in Chinese medicine
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Overheard at Nat Geo
One good deed: While covering the bushfires on Australia’s Kangaroo Island (above), reporter Kennedy Warne sought shelter in a cafe that has become a vital social center during the evacuation of people and animals. One server had the day off but came in anyway to help others. She took a breakfast order from the editor of the local newspaper, who had been up all night giving the community information about the shifting blazes. “It’s on us, Stan,” she was overheard telling the editor. “So is the kale smoothie.”
Read: 60 hours on burning Kangaroo Island
The big takeaway
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The last glimpse
Once ubiquitous: Above is an image of a just-emerged mayfly in Minnesota. The insects have been so numerous their swarms show up on weather maps, and waterside communities have used snowplows to rid the streets of them. They are a key food for fish such as perch. But a study shows that populations of the insect have plunged 52 percent from 2012 to 2019 in the Mississippi Basin, writes Nat Geo’s Douglas Main.
Read: Mayfly numbers drop by half since 2012, threatening foodchain