Episode 6: The trouble with America's captive tigers

Less than 4,000 tigers live in the wild, but experts say there may be more than 10,000 captive in the U.S., where ownership of big cats is largely unregulated. Overheard’s Peter Gwin talks with National Geographic Channel's Mariana van Zeller about her investigation into tiger trafficking and how wildlife tourism encourages a cycle of breeding and mistreatment.

Clay, Daniel, and Enzo, three of 39 tigers rescued from an animal park in Oklahoma, gather at a pool at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado. These cats will live out their lives here, with proper nutrition and vet care.
Photograph by Steve Winter

Less than 4,000 tigers live in the wild, but experts say there may be more than 10,000 captive in the U.S., where ownership of big cats is largely unregulated. Overheard’s Peter Gwin talks with National Geographic Channel's Mariana van Zeller about her investigation into tiger trafficking and how wildlife tourism encourages a cycle of breeding and mistreatment.


MARIANA VAN ZELLER (JOURNALIST): Nothing would have prepared me for what we actually saw, even before we go in. So we, you know, start driving towards South Myrtle Beach. And we're driving through this suburban neighborhood, where there's families, and, you know, your typical suburban American neighborhood. And the whole time I'm thinking, do these people know that there are dozens of tigers living right next to them?

PETER GWIN (HOST): This is journalist Mariana van Zeller. In 2019 she was producing a story about tiger tourism for a National Geographic Channel show called Trafficked. Her reporting led her to Myrtle Beach Safari. It’s a wildlife attraction, also known as T.I.G.E.R.S. And it’s run by one of the biggest captive tiger breeders in America: Doc Antle.

VAN ZELLER: He has owned actually since 1983, this sort of 50-acre property in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, called T.I.G.E.R.S.  

[Recording: Myrtle Beach Safari tour guide: “Good morning! Welcome to T.I.G.E.R.S.! This is the Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species. Hey. It is our great pleasure to welcome you to our home. You heard that right. This is where we live, with a hundred amazing animal ambassadors.”]

VAN ZELLER: It’s basically a park, a safari park essentially where people can go visit all these wild animalsAnd he has an array of, you know, dozens of tigers and chimpanzees and a very famous elephant called Bubbles that he likes to ride along around the park.

GWIN: But what most people are here for is the experience of getting to pet a tiger cub.

VAN ZELLER: You've got couples there on their honeymoon, you know, anniversaries, families with grandkids, and you know, most of people are just, you know, love tigers, have never been this close to tigers, and this is their opportunity to be close to a wild animal.

GWIN: Conservationists and animal welfare advocates have a different take on what’s happening at this facility.

VAN ZELLER: Critics of Doc Antle and his park will say that they are bred for profits. They are bred to make money because they attract visitors to places like this, to parks like this.

GWIN: And those critics say that commercial tiger breeding is the reason why captive tigers in the U.S. actually outnumber tigers in the wild.

I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic magazine. And this is Overheard at National Geographic: a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. This week: why are there so many tigers in the U.S.? And what’s being done to protect these big cats and the people who live near them? More after the break.


GWIN: A century ago, there were 100,000 tigers roaming in forests, swamps, and savannas throughout Asia. Today the World Wildlife Fund estimates there are only about 3,900 left in the wild—and that’s largely because people have moved into many of the areas where tigers live, reducing their habitat. And poachers have targeted them for the international wildlife trade. And yet conservationists believe there are many more tigers in a place that’s quite far from their natural home.

VAN ZELLER: In the United States, there are anywhere between five to ten thousand captive tigers, which is a crazy number. And I could not believe it when I started looking into this.

GWIN: Mariana wanted to know why there are so many, so she started talking to animal welfare experts. And they pointed her to tiger breeders.

VAN ZELLER: And there was one name that we kept hearing again and again, and that was Doc Antle.

GWIN: You might recognize Doc Antle as one of the characters on the Netflix series Tiger King.

He also handled animals for films like Ace Ventura and Doctor Doolittle. And full disclosure: National Geographic worked with Doc Antle on some TV programs years ago. He claims that by breeding tigers, he’s helping to save them. But conservationists and animal welfare advocates say park operators like Doc Antle are really breeding tigers so they can have a steady supply of cubs for customers to pet. This is harder on the animals than you might think. Breeders often separate mothers from their cubs soon after they are born, so that the mothers will go back into heat again sooner. And dozens of visitors every day handle the cubs for hours. Scientists say that causes physical distress, weakens the immune system, and makes the animals much more likely to develop infections. Mariana had a front-row seat to the cub petting experience at Myrtle Beach Safari.

GWIN: You got to hold a baby tiger. What's that experience like, and how was it controlled in the Doc Antle world?

VAN ZELLER: So we're sitting around this sort of big circular area and they start bringing the tiger cubs around. They brought about four or five tiger cubs.

[Recording: Myrtle Beach Safari tour guide: Now, we’re going to release a bunch of babies in here, is that okay with everyone? I thought so. So when these babies are in here, they’re going to be crawling across your laps.When they’re in your laps, make sure you reach out and you...pet them! That’s what they’re here for, right?]

VAN ZELLER: And then there was one tiger that actually came around that I also—came and sat on my lap. They told us that it was four or five months old.

[Recording: Myrtle Beach Safari tour guide: Please do not stick your fingers in their...mouths! These are predators. Baby predators, but they have teeth, they have claws...]

VAN ZELLER: I was supposed to be happy and exhilarated with this experience, but deep inside it was troubling for me.

GWIN: As a human being holding a tiger, was it exciting? Was it sort of a thrilling thing? Can you see what people are spending 500 dollars or more for this experience? Did it live up to this idea?

VAN ZELLER: You know, Peter, I wish I could say yes, but the truth is that not for me, because the whole time I'm thinking about what I've heard from all the experts, about the way—how you see the tiger cubs being handed over from lap to lap and hand to hand. And the whole time when it landed on my lap, the whole time I'm thinking, you know, that I am just one more lap and one more hand. And this is not something that I really want for the tiger to experience and that I at that time had no—I didn't really want experience for myself.

GWIN: For many, it’s a trip of a lifetime. And they receive lots of information during tours about how the facility is saving endangered species.

[Recording: If you’ve been to Barefoot Landing and had your photo taken with one of those little animals, we take money from that and the tour you’re doing right now and put that towards wildlife conservation all over the world.”

VAN ZELLER: So he's really trying to sell this idea that any money that is spent at this park that is ultimately part of that money at least will end up in conservation and trying to rescue wild tigers.

GWIN: Mariana says it’s easy for any visitor to believe that’s what he’s doing.

VAN ZELLER: The tigers seemingly look very like they're very well taken care of. It's a beautiful facility. Everything is so clean.

GWIN: Right.

VAN ZELLER: So it's sometimes harder, you know, to find what are the holes in this.

GWIN: When Mariana visited Myrtle Beach Safari, tickets cost 500 dollars per person. And visitors pay thousands for other special experiences with animals, like getting to swim with a tiger. Doc Antle told Mariana that the money he makes at Myrtle Beach

Safari gets placed into his nonprofit, the Rare Species Fund. And that group distributes the money to conservation efforts around the world.

DOC ANTLE [TIGER BREEDER]: We solely have built ranger stations deep in the jungles. We pay the rangers salaries every day to walk the jungles, to pick up deadly snares, to chase down poachers, to support scientists who are doing research. So the money that people spend here is visibly active in the wild, saving wildlife on a daily basis, and has been doing so for 35 years.

GWIN: But she couldn’t get a detailed answer for how much money is spent on saving wild tigers or where and how it’s spent.

Doc Antle needs to have lots of tiger cubs to keep his customers happy. But Mariana wondered what happens to all of those tigers once they become full-grown adults. At about three months, the cubs grow big enough to be dangerous to people. They’re also expensive to take care of and feed. It costs tens of thousands of dollars a year to feed a tiger. And tigers born in roadside zoos can’t be released into the wild. And even if they could….These owners often cross-breed tigers with lions, and mix tigers from different sub-species—so like a Bengal with a Siberian, which would never happen in the wild. Biologists say because of those mixed genetics, those tigers can’t be used to restore wild populations.

VAN ZELLER: So one of the biggest questions out there is what happens to these tigers once they reach what—once they become adults and they just become too expensive to handle? And it is something that we tried—we asked Doc Antle, we asked every single expert. And there is no actual answer out there.

GWIN: Mariana looked into claims by animal welfare advocates that the tigers end up getting sold or sometimes killed. Two incidents in particular stood out. In 2017 a teenager tried to transport a Bengal tiger cub across the U.S.-Mexico border. And in

2018 a New York resident tried to ship tiger and lion bones to Thailand. But beyond that, her reporting has shown that it’s difficult to find out what happens to them. They just seem to disappear.

More after this.

When tiger owners realize they can't keep their animals anymore, there are some safe and reputable places that can give them a home. Our senior editor, Eli Chen, went to one just an hour south of St. Louis, Missouri, called the Crown Ridge Tiger Sanctuary. It has three tigers: one male named Izzy and two females Gracie and Thor. They hang out in grassy, wooded spaces surrounded by a 16-foot steel fence that’s also surrounded by a eight-foot steel fence. It kind of looks like a fortress. Gracie walks up to the fence, near where operations manager John Madigan is standing. And John points out Gracie’s eyes, which are almost completely white.

JOHN MADIGAN [SANCTUARY MANAGER]: If you look closely at her, you can see her pupils behind her eyes. So those aren't the pupils. Um, it's just like some discoloration that happens. Like on this side, you can see just red discoloration as well.

GWIN: Gracie and her sister Thor were rescued in 2006 from an animal park in southern Missouri. John says before Gracie was rescued, she had a condition called entropion.

MADIGAN: And it's a condition that, like dogs, cats can get. And it's where their eyelids are kind of folded over. So when she was younger, every time she would blink her eye, her eyelashes would kind of scratch the front of her eye. And because of the facility that she was at wasn't taking proper care of her, over time, scar tissue built up.

GWIN: Gracie is at least 90 percent blind.

MADIGAN: Out of all the cats, she tends to react to our voice more. So like if she’s inside, we’ll talk to her more so she knows where we are, knows where the food is.

GWIN: John has worked at the sanctuary for four years, and before that volunteered for five years. In that time, he’s developed a strong bond with the cats.

MADIGAN: You know, when I get here in the morning, Thor will walk over and kind of chuff and say hello to me. And then, like, that's the best sound. Because it’s them opening up to you, and acknowledging that they appreciate or they recognize you kind of thing.

GWIN: Contrary to what I thought, tigers don’t actually purr. John says they chuff.

GWIN: So what does a chuff sound like? Can you imitate a chuff?

MADIGAN: I can try. It's kind of like blowing out air, and they are—all of them sound different. I would say when I chuff it then it's like a [makes chuffing noise].

GWIN: Oh, you chuff back. You talk to ‘em.


GWIN: And they do more than chuff.

MADIGAN: They'll have little like moans and groans, especially when they're, like, hungry or eating or want attention or something like that. So those are also fun to hear. And then, you know, like their roar and stuff. That shows a little bit more of their like, you know, power. Same with their growl, you know. That is a good reminder, not that we typically need one, but a good reminder on why we don't go in with them.

GWIN: Do you think if you got in the enclosure, they would attack you or. I mean, what's your sense of that? Do you ever feel like you've made a connection and you could actually, you know, interact with them?

MADIGAN: I don’t know if they would aggressively attack. I don’t know. I’m not going to find out. But even if they weren't being aggressive—like Izzy, one of the things he likes to do is when we go in the alleyway to, like, change his water, he kind of likes to run up and down the alleyway with us and kind of like stalk us and run around. So, like, if we were in the enclosure, even if he was being playful, and, you know, jumping on us, gain, he's a 500-pound tiger with razor sharp claws and teeth. So even if he wasn't necessarily meaning to hurt, he could easily kill me.

GWIN: John’s hard rule about never ever interacting physically with tigers is one of the biggest differences between rescue sanctuaries and roadside zoos. In 2019 Crown Ridge received certification from the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. That means the facility follows strict rules--like not allowing human contact with the animals-to ensure that the tigers are treated ethically and humanely. Crown Ridge doesn’t breed them either, because that’s not a part of their mission. As for rescuing more tigers, John says that can be difficult for many reasons.

GWIN: Do you guys ever get any, like, tips? I mean, is there anybody that calls you and says, Hey, you know, so there's a tiger at such and such a place? And I think it's, you know, it's mistreated. Can you guys go in and get it? You ever get anything like that?

MADIGAN: So we do. We get, you know, our, like, supporters and stuff reaching out. Unfortunately, there's not typically much we can do. You know, we don't have any legal authority to seize cats from anybody if they don't want to really, you know, surrender their cats.

GWIN: Sanctuaries can rescue big cats when an organization like PETA sues a roadside zoo for harassing animals. Or when the U.S. Department of Agriculture closes them down for violating the federal Animal Welfare Act. Sometimes, a big cat owner simply doesn’t have the ability to take care of one.

KATE DYLEWSKY (ANIMAL WELFARE ADVOCATE): It is altogether too easy to acquire big cats as a private individual in the United States.

GWIN: Kate Dylewsky is a senior policy advisor at the Animal Welfare Institute, an organization that lobbies for stronger legal protections for animals. Kate says the laws around big cat ownership in the U.S. are incredibly loose.

DYLEWSKY: There is no federal framework for regulating pet ownership of these big cats. And so it comes down to state and local laws. There are 19 states that prohibit private ownership entirely. But then the rest of the states, it's a mishmash of you can own some species, but not others, or you need a permit in order to own them or there's no law whatsoever.

GWIN: But in five states—Nevada, Alabama, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Wisconsin —you don’t need a permit to own one. To me, tigers are massive, powerful apex predators. I have a hard time imagining one hanging out in my kitchen like a housecat. So how are people adopting them? I wanted to know how easy it would be for me to acquire one. So I went online, searched for exotic animal breeders and called them up.

[phone ringing]

GWIN: Hey there, this is Peter Gwin, I’m calling from…My name is Peter Gwin and I’m an editor at National Geographic...This is Peter Gwin calling....I was looking for Exotic Bob, I got this number off of...I saw you guys actually had an advertisement for tiger cubs and we’re working on a story about tiger ownership and just wanted to hear more about what that involved...

I didn’t have much luck.

GWIN: ...you know what it’s like to breed and sell tigers...would love to talk to you about it. If you get a chance, give me a call. My number is...Anyway, thanks. Take care.

I called people in Alaska, Montana, and Pennsylvania. I spoke for a while to a man who said he’d ship a cub to my house in Washington, D.C., but I had to wire him a thousand dollars--in bitcoin--so probably a scam. I also spoke to a woman who advertised a mountain lion cub and said she’d sold it within a few hours. But she didn’t want to talk on the record. After the release of Tiger King, she said big cat breeders and owners don’t want to draw public attention to themselves. But I did manage to speak with one big cat owner: former Dallas police chief Bill Rathburn, who at one time owned seven tigers. He hasn’t owned tigers in several years, but he thinks fondly of them.

BILL RATHBURN [FORMER TIGER OWNER]: I would go in the cage with them and hug them, and two of them sucked my finger their whole lives.

GWIN: Bill explained that the tigers sucking his fingers was a sign of affection.

RATHBURN: They all suck your fingers as babies, but then most of them stop. But two of them, including the oldest one, the first one we got, sucked my finger till the day he died.

GWIN: I mean, that just seems so bizarre. I mean, this is like a, you know, such a wild creature and such a powerful creature that just sounds so, you know, risky, I guess, to somebody who's never been in a cage before.

RATHBURN: Well, I was not reckless, you know, but I knew his personality, and I knew his moods, and so I made all those assessments before I went in. And you learn a lot of things in owning them. And one of the things you learn is never turn your back on them —not that they’ll attack you viciously, but they’ll attack you playfully.

GWIN: But as much as Bill loved his tigers, he believes that many people shouldn’t have them.

RATHBURN: I've never advocated for private ownership of tigers because most people either are not able to or are not willing to make the financial commitment that’s required to own them safely.

GWIN: Kate Dylewsky says owning a big cat comes with major risks to the animal and the people around it. In the last three decades, there have been close to 400 incidents in which a big cat escaped, mauled adults and children, or posed other threats to public safety.

GWIN: Are there any specific instances or case studies that you know about that you can sort of like, say this is example A of why it’s not a good idea to have tigers in people's backyards or roadside zoos, etc.?

DYLEWSKY: The incident that most quickly jumps to mind as a glaring example of why this is a threat to public safety is what happened in Zanesville, Ohio, back in 2011. There

was a man named Terry Thompson, who, unbeknownst to his neighbors and unbeknownst to the local sheriff's department, had a menagerie of over 50 exotic animals, including over 30 big cats. And one day he threw open the gates to his property and he killed himself. And suddenly the local law enforcement department was getting calls from people saying there's a lion running down the highway. What do we do? And the sheriff's department was forced to come out and kill nearly every single one of those animals.

GWIN: I remember that being on the news, it was crazy.

GWIN: Terry Thompson’s story is pretty extreme. But there are many less extreme cases that are still really scary. There have been several incidents where a big cat escaped from its owner’s house, showed up in someone’s yard and killed their dog. Or in some cases, authorities just found some tigers wandering on the side of the road, not sure where they came from. And it often falls to local law enforcement, who aren’t trained to handle big cats, to address the situation.

GWIN: A broad coalition of scientists, accredited zoos, and animal welfare advocates have been pushing for stronger regulations to protect big cats. Kate’s organization—the

Animal Welfare Institute—is among those that have lobbied Congress to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act which would ban private ownership of tigers and lions.

DYLEWSKY: So, you know, we're talking about someone like you or like me who says,

I'd really like to have a big cat on my private property and goes out and buys one—that would no longer be allowed under this law.

GWIN: The Big Cat Public Safety Act has gotten strong, bipartisan support in Congress. It’s also backed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and many law enforcement agencies. Some big cat owners would be exempt: people who already own big cats, for example, as well as accredited zoos, rescue sanctuaries, and people with federal licenses to exhibit animals. But the law would prohibit exhibitors from allowing visitors to touch big cats.

DYLEWSKY: No zoo would be allowed to offer up cubs for the public to handle anymore. This would not put any zoos out of business. This would not impact any zoo that wants to operate in the traditional manner of having big cats behind bars for the public to come and see.

GWIN: The bill has gotten increased attention after the release of Tiger King, which raised public awareness of the tiger tourism industry. Meanwhile, several characters from Tiger King have gotten into trouble with the existing laws. In October 2020, the state of Virginia charged Doc Antle with 15 counts, including animal cruelty and wildlife trafficking.

GWIN: There are still few places in the world where wild tigers prowl freely. As a part of her reporting for Trafficked, Mariana traveled to forest in Thailand to join a team of rangers there patrolling the area for poachers.They asked her not to disclose the name of the forest to protect the wild tigers living there.

VAN ZELLER: And it was a wild experience. I mean, we're walking deep into this forest, and it's beautiful and lush. And there's all sorts of animals.

GWIN: She and her crew ended up camping in the forest with the rangers—and slept outside.

VAN ZELLER: And it was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. We were set up in hammocks with all these park rangers. And I started hearing all these noises. you know there are snakes, and I’m thinking there are snakes coming into my hammock. And then I started thinking of the worst, which obviously is there had to be a tiger right next to me. And I sort of imagined that it was breathing right next to me.

GWIN: The following morning, she told the rangers about her fears. But they laughed because a wild tiger sighting--even here in the heart of tiger country--is extremely rare. Some of the rangers who’d worked in the forest for years had never even seen one themselves.

VAN ZELLER: It sort of gave me that respect that I believe we should have for tigers, which is if I was lucky enough to see a tiger, it should be seen in the wild. And we should see it far away, and we should respect it as the wild and beautiful predator that it is.

GWIN: Well said, indeed. More after this.

ELI CHEN (SENIOR EDITOR): Hey, I’m Eli Chen, senior editor of Overheard at National Geographic with more programming notes. For Mariana van Zeller's reporting on the tiger trade and other black markets around the world, tune into National Geographic Channel's series Trafficked. If you’re interested in learning more about captive tigers in the U.S., make sure to check out National Geographic’s coverage of this issue.

In our show notes, we’ll link to articles that writer Natasha Daly has reported on big cats and wildlife tourism. And subscribers can read a magazine article called “Captive tigers in the U.S. outnumber those in the wild. It’s a problem.” It comes with a fascinating map that tracks how tigers get traded across the country. That’s in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, and Laura Sim.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen, who also produced this episode.

Executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who also edited this episode.

Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris, with special thanks to Vilma Linares, Natasha Daly, and Rachael Bale.

Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.

And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


Want more?

For Mariana van Zeller’s reporting on tiger tourism and trafficking around the world, tune into National Geographic’s series Trafficked.

Learn about what the Netflix series Tiger King left out about captive tigers and how visitors of roadside zoos can pose health risks to big cats. And check out how some of the series’ characters, like Doc Antle and Jeff Lowe, have been penalized for their treatment of wild animals.

Also explore:

Listen to our previous episode about the hidden costs of wildlife tourism.

And for paid subscribers:

Read “Captive tigers in the U.S. outnumber those in the wild. It’s a problem,” the National Geographic magazine story that looked into why there are thousands of big cats in the U.S.