Photograph by Michael Nichols
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A close-up of a captive tiger's face at Marine World in Vallejo, California.

Photograph by Michael Nichols

Found: An Unusually Large House Cat

When I research photos for the National Geographic Found Tumblr, I’m often looking for images that inspire more questions or slightly alter the way you see history and reality. When I stumbled across Michael “Nick” Nichols’ 1996 image of a Siberian tiger cub in a playpen, a hundred questions immediately jumped into my head. Where was this cub, and who put it in a playpen? Music video shots of rapper “Tyga’s” mansion with a tiger cub in the corner of a room started to play in my mind.

Nichols is a staff photographer and editor at large at National Geographic magazine who has been photographing endangered species for well over 20 years. I spoke with him and asked him to tell me more about this yawning snowy white cub.

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A white Bengal tiger cub in a child’s play-pen, which is being used as a bed. Arkansas, 1996.

JANNA DOTSCHKAL: Tell me the story behind this photo—why was the cub in the playpen?

NICK NICHOLS: This tiger cub’s name was either Sarge or Major. Betty Young is the name of the lady who had these tigers in Arkansas. Betty started to adopt and ended up with 52 tigers, which was complete madness. She became more and more controversial. I photographed her home in ‘96. She has good intentions and really loves tigers. She would adopt them from bad situations during the cocaine craze. People who shouldn’t have tigers had them as pets, so she would rescue them. I went there during what I call my “Year of the Tiger,” when I was trying to shoot tigers in all kinds of situations. I wanted to tell the world everything you could about tigers.

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Most of Betty Young’s tigers were discarded by unthinking owners who found that their 400-pound pets demanded up to 5,000 pounds of raw meat a year. Arkansas, 1996.

People might think: “What a cute picture!” when in reality the house was a mess and the crib was torn to bits. This guy was a kitten and could bite you, really hurt you. I knew the whole situation was going to be bizarre.

Tigers are solitary cats. They’re not made to live together. The only time when they do is when they’re cubs. Places like this are very surreal but they can also be dangerous and very emotional. People look at tigers like they’re house cats. Many captive tigers, especially ones used for entertainment, have their teeth pulled and are declawed. They still look like a tiger but they don’t have their tools.

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Betty Young plays with one of 52 tigers at her ten-acre compound. Arkansas, 1996.

DOTSCHKAL: What role do captive tigers play in conservation?

NICHOLS: The most important thing in tiger conservation is habitat preservation. Then prey-based preservation. There really is no conservation value to these private homes and captive tigers. Homes like Betty’s are a product of the fact that we have let tigers into the system and they ultimately need to be treated morally and humanely. One of the biggest issues for me is that we shouldn’t let exotic pets breed. It’s a huge mistake – you’re just making more of something that already isn’t good. There’s just no way a predator can live that close to humans.

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A male white tiger endures life in a zoo in Bhopal, the capital of Madya Pradesh in India.

Despite what some people believe, we’re not in danger of lions or tigers going extinct. You’d have to set off a nuke to do that. We will always have captive specimens. What is at play is the lives of wild tigers and lions. We’re losing them in critical habitats. We all want them to be there, in natural habitats. When you’re in the wild with a tiger, you can feel its presence. It’s the most incredible creature I’ve ever been around. In captivity, they lose that magic.

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Young tigers behind a wire fence in India.

If I make photographs and they’re ironic enough then maybe they will speak to people. If we put the money spent on exotic pets and entertainment into preserving tiger’s natural habitats, that might change things a bit. It’s a conundrum that we’re in. All I can do is make photos and present them.

Why does anybody need to have a pet tiger? I want them all to be wild and free. The real way to see a tiger is a glimpse through the bushes.

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A captive young tiger runs across the grass on Tiger Island at Marine World in California.

View more of Michael “Nick” Nichols’ work on his website and hear him talk about his life as a National Geographic photographer in a recent video interview.

Follow Janna Dotschkal on Twitter and Instagram.

National Geographic is working to avert the extinction of lions, tigers, and other big cats with the Big Cats Initiativea comprehensive program that supports innovative projects. Learn how you can help save these animals.