Cub Petting

Handling Cubs Is Detrimental To Their Health and Hurts Conservation Efforts

Lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!), some of the most popular animals for tourists to pay to hold or feed a bottle. Their symbolism of strength, power, wildness, and beauty is mesmerizing. It is hard to believe there is anything cuter than a cub, and it is an opportunity to get as close as possible. “Tiger selfies” are of high demand and one of the most popular exotic tourist attractions in the United States and around the world. What animal loving patrons do not understand is that this industry is not as cute and cuddly as it seems.

There is a deep dark side of what happens to cubs after a quick interaction that the exploiters do not want to expose due to a high money making scheme. Most patrons are not aware of the underlying problems, abuse, and neglect these animals endure for a lifetime. They believe that they are truly helping to conserve the species and expressing their love for tigers and lions through interaction. This trend is causing thousands of big cats and exotic animals to suffer.

Exotic animal cubs are heavily overexploited and overbred due to the extreme desire to view their cuteness. There are no “behind the scenes” episodes of where the animals come from, or what happens when they grow into powerful apex predators. If the public knew that “liking” these videos, following baby animal posts, or actually visiting a place to play with cubs was actually harming them, would they still be so popular?

Overlook Of Cub Petting Practices:

  • Cub petting and pay to play schemes are popular interactive tourist attractions exploiting animals, and are extremely profitable.
  • Animal loving patrons are fooled into thinking they are helping with conservation or feeding an abandoned cub, tricked into supporting cruel practices.
  • Cubs are stripped away from their mothers at birth, malnourished, sleep deprived, and lack proper veterinary care.
  • They are often starved in order for them to be hungry for the next picture, and to stay small for the weight limits of public handling.
  • Babies are only legally allowed to be held for 2-3 months or up to 30 pounds, after 12 weeks, they are considered to be “too dangerous”.
  • Big cats live 20 years or more in captivity, so babies used for photos are disposed of to make room for more cubs.
  • Cub petting practices are poorly regulated, and many facilities use illegal practices to exploit cubs despite their age or health, continuing abuse.
  • Mothers are constantly bred to keep up with this window, when in the wild they would only have cubs every 2-3 years.
  • Breeding generic tigers and other exotic animals in captivity does not help with their conservation, or save them from going extinct in the wild.
  • Private breeding causes a surplus of adult dangerous exotic animals who are euthanized once grown and unprofitable, or sold to roadside zoos and circuses.

Are a few minutes of play and a photo worth a lifetime of suffering for a big cat?

Click Here To Watch A Video by Turpentine Creek About The Risks Of Cub Petting – This video is a few years old and the bill H.R. 1818 that is mentioned has been re-introduced this session as H.R. 1380. 

The Reality of Cub Petting

Cubs born with the sole purpose of becoming a prop are ripped away from their mother minutes to hours after birth. Newborn cubs are vulnerable and depend on calcium rich milk from their mothers to develop properly. Cubs spend 2-3 years with their mothers, learning vital skills to survive in adulthood. Instead, cub petting facilities take away babies prematurely so the mother can go into heat right away to produce more cubs, just like a dog in a puppy mill. For this industry to thrive, there needs to be a constant flow of cubs within an 8-week age bracket.

Young cubs are easily susceptible to calcium deficiencies because of this, and develop lifelong health defects, such as metabolic bone disease. This causes brittle bones, development issues, and may become severe enough to take the cub’s life. To ensure the cub will be hungry for the photoshoot, they are starved until someone comes to pay and bottle feed them. Young babies are deprived of sleep so tourists can repeatedly take their picture.  Lack of food, sleep, and proper nutrition leads to a poor immune system, increasing the risk of the transfer of zoonotic diseases.

Blackfire, Rocklyn, and Peyton, rescued by TCWR in 2016 with severe metabolic bone disease, unable to walk. They were victims of the cub-petting industry. With careful treatment and special diets, the TCWR team nursed them back to health. They will live happy lives, free from exploitation and abuse”.

Handlers spank, yell, scruff, and manipulate babies to get them to behave a certain way. They are constantly disciplined for performing natural behaviors for a baby big cat, and are desperate for sleep. If physically hurting the cubs doesn’t stop natural tendencies, they may be declawed or defanged. They are born into a lifetime of stress with no relief, being exploited for financial gain.

As of 2019, there are 41 USDA licensed facilities within the United States, as well as many more international cub petting facilities that allow cub photo opportunities.  Private cub petting facilities treat the animals as props rather than living beings. Money and constant breeding drives the industry to meet the high demand of cub holding at the expense of the animals’ welfare.

A map showing the Registered USDA Licensed Facilities that allow hands-on interaction with cubs. There are many other facilities not shown on this map due to lack of registration.

We can stop this cruel industry by ending the demand to hold baby cubs!

Laws and Regulations

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)  through the USDA controls regulations for cub petting facilities that have a Class C Exhibitors License. These guidelines are extremely loose and vague regarding limitations to handling opportunities, providing loopholes for exhibitors. The regulations for public exotic cub handling are up for interpretation by both the USDA inspectors and wildlife exhibitors.

Stated within the USDA APHIS Animal Care Inspection Guide 2.131 for public contact procedures.

“Newborn and infant non-domestic cats four weeks of age or younger have special handling and husbandry needs… for regulatory purposes, AC generally considers big cats to become juveniles when they reach roughly 12 weeks of age. Inspectors should not use this age as an absolute “cutoff date”, but rather should use it as a guideline when evaluating exhibits that allow public contact with big cats that are at or older than 12 weeks of age. At approximately 12 weeks of age dangerous animals, such as tigers, lions, bears, and wolves, become too big, too fast and too strong to be used for public contact” (57-58). 

After this age window, what happens to the cubs that at 12 weeks old, considered “too dangerous”?

There is no tracking of these animals if not given a census to the USDA. It is required for exhibitors to keep a census of animals, but is not submitted to the USDA until they are able to visit the facility. The same inspectors that are responsible to inspect facilities with big cats must also visit individuals, breeders, carnivals, zoos, circuses, research facilities and educational exhibitors that display animals of any species to the public. Due to the limited number of inspectors, it is easy for exhibitors to continue using cubs before and past the legal age limit, forge paperwork, or simply not put a cub on a census that has died or been sold.

Big cats are easily used passed their age restrictions. For the “safety” of the public, the cubs are usually sedated to prevent biting and clawing, and then stored in small cages when no longer needed. The overpopulation of these big cats results in inhumane treatment, unsuitable living conditions, and abuse at all stages of the animal’s life. In the U.S. there are over 5,000 tigers predicted to be in private ownership, although the true number of big cats in captivity remains unknown. There are not enough accredited facilities that can accommodate the extreme amount of overbreeding of exotic cubs for photo and petting opportunities. Stated by the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance’s position paper on private ownership of big cats,

“No federal agency tracks the number of captive big cats in the U.S., so it is difficult to provide an exact number.”

A small amount of abused and neglected big cats are fortunate to be rescued by an accredited sanctuary as a forever home. Many are euthanized because they are not profitable, sold to roadside zoos, circuses, and hunting ranches to be further exploited.

Click here To watch “What Baby Tigers are Forced to Do Might Shock You” (EXPLICIT), Humane Society of the United States Video 

Lack of Safety

Because of the intense handling, they are exposed to germs and zoonotic diseases. They do not have a sufficient immune system until the age of 16 weeks. During this time frame they are highly susceptible to disease, but are still allowed to be held between 4-12 weeks of age, per USDA regulations. Visit Handling and Husbandry of Neonatal Nondomestic Cats (March 2016) from the USDA APHIS Department for husbandry requirements and standards. Ringworm is also easily developed in the small cages and carriers in which cubs are kept, and can easily be passed on to patrons. View: Neonatal Cub Rules Updated

Finally, the general public are untrained on how to feed young cubs, there is a huge risk of the baby aspirating, developing pneumonia, and dying if not fed properly. Feeding should always be taken seriously and performed by a trained professional.

Banning cub petting would eliminate all safety risks involved for the animals and humans

No Conservation Value

Breeding endangered species in captivity and allowing them to be handled for photos and played with for entertainment is NOT helping their conservation. It is deferring from the reality of the diminishing wild populations, and encourages the rampant breeding of inbred animals in captivity. Breeding generic tigers in captive situations is not preventing them from going extinct in the wild.  It misleads patrons into thinking they are helping with conservation, and takes away valuable education and funds away from endangered species.

It would be a death sentence to walk up to a tiger mother and try and pet or handle her cubs. Petting and handling a cub has no benefit for that animal, and if not bred and exploited for profit, would never be touched by human hands. It solely benefits the human who is participating in the petting and satisfying personal desires to touch a wild animal. Conservation should be viewed as how an action is benefiting the animal and its future populations. Cub petting does the exact opposite when they habituate an animal who does not naturally have human interaction. Extremely deceitful tactics are used to make money off hopeful citizens, wanting to interact with the animals and also help save them. Choosing to admire big cats from a distance and support true sanctuaries and conservation entities is what is truly making a difference for captive and wild exotic animals.

Having a close encounter with an endangered species, such as cub petting, does not strengthen the willingness to take action and support conservation. It decreases concern for the overall wellbeing of the species, and desensitizes the true problems they are facing in the wild. Treating wild animals as props or pets is the taking away their value as a wild, apex predator, and the reason why there are so many tigers and lions suffering in captivity.

Generic exotic animals also do not help with conservation, as they are captive the rest of their lives and have no generic purity. Breeding them does not save them from extinction. You cannot release an animal bred in captivity back into the wild because they cannot fend for themselves, their mothers did not teach them how to survive. They have also been so carelessly bred, that due to inbreeding and health issues, would devastate wild populations even more.

Pseudo (fake) sanctuaries, breeding facilities as well as cub petting rings claim to be helping with conservation and rescuing animals as a sanctuary. They will also say that the animal enjoys being handled, performing, and interaction with humans. THEY DO NOT! It is not true that breeding big cats or any other species in captivity is helping with conservation, because they are NOT released into the wild. These animals will remain in captivity and in cages for the rest of their lives, which is not promoting protection, animal welfare, or conservation of these animals. It is just the easiest way for these businesses to trick the public into spending their money, and believing that they are helping these amazing animals.

The Solution to Ending Abuse and Neglect of Big Cats and Exotic Animals

The Big Cat Public Safety Act is a federal bill that if enacted, will prohibit private ownership of exotic big cats throughout the United States, and ban cub petting. Advocating for this law to pass by calling or emailing local congressional bodies is the best way to gain support. To learn more about this law, and how to ask your local congressman to support it please visit Turpentine Creek’s Advocacy Page.

Tell Congress to Protect Big Cats! A quick note to them can help protect big cats throughout the country. By passing strict laws in the United States, we can all work together to give big cats a voice, and prevent further exploitation of these beautiful animals.

There should be no acceptable age limit for cubs to be in contact with humans, and the USDA should ban the cub petting industry and disallow breeding of generic tigers in captivity. Closing the loophole would be a huge breakthrough in ending the cub petting epidemic. The USDA rule is interpretive, and can be easily reversed by requiring cubs to be a safe distance from the public.

Big cats can live to be 20 years or older in captivity and true sanctuaries become a forever loving home for each animal. True sanctuaries like TCWR are accredited and verified by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), part of the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance (BCSA), and work together to find permanent homes for animals that can be rescued. True sanctuaries will never buy, sell, breed, or trade, and are strictly a no contact facility.

True sanctuaries are tirelessly working to rescue neglected and abandoned animals, and it is extremely expensive to provide them with forever care. True sanctuaries are non-profits, who take on the complete financial responsibility of the animals in their care, and depend on public donations to provide forever homes for rescued animals and to be able to rescue more in need.

How You Can Make a Difference:

  • DO NOT participate, support, or have your photo taken with a baby exotic animal
  • DO NOT attend attractions that include big cats or other exotic animals in their shows and performances.
  • DO NOT purchase or consume exotic animal items such as purses, wine, etc.
  • Only visit sanctuaries that are true sanctuaries. Visit the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries’ website to find true sanctuaries in your area, or where you choose to travel.
  • Be their voice and share with others what you have learned to protect more animals in the future.
  • DO NOT participate in pay to play schemes. Resist the temptation!
  • Speak up against cub petting!
  • DO NOT follow or promote pages that endorse exploitation, breeding, and handling of baby exotic animals.

Most importantly, educate others to not support the abuse and exploitation of exotic animals. Advocate for the passing of the Big Cat Public Safety Act by contacting your local congressman and senators.  Together, we can make a difference for captive big cats!

*Disclaimer: All research and information is provided by TCWR Education Staff, pertaining to the mission of the facility.


Please Visit Supporting Organizations and Articles:

  1. ACTION NEEDED: USDA Again Considering Ban on big Cat Cub Handling Carson Barylak, International Fund for Animal Welfare (2016)
  2. Action Needed: Speak Out Against Public Handling of Big Cats– The Wildcat Sanctuary (2013)
  3. ACTION: Renewed Push for USDA Direct Big Cat Cub Handling Ban Carson Barylak, International Fund for Animal Welfare (2015)
  4. Are Wildlife Sanctuaries Good for Animals? Rachel Hartigan Shea, National Geographic
  5. Cub Petting- the Sad Reality Behind this Industry– The Wildcat Sanctuary (2017)
  6. Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting: Wildlife in Need
  7. Resist the Temptation: There Is No Need Whatsoever to Play with Big Cat Cubs Kelly Donithan, International Fund for Animal Welfare (2015)
  8. The Big Cat Handling Crisis, Big Cat Rescue, Born Free USA, Humane Society of the United States, Ian Somerhalder Foundation, International Fund for Animal Welfare, World Wildlife Fund
  9. The Dark, Deadly Side of Tiger Cub Photo Ops, PETA
  10. The Hidden Cruelty Behind Cute Exotic Cat Cub Petting Attractions, Julie Hana, The Wildcat Sanctuary (2017)
  11. The Truth About Cub Petting, Big Cat Rescue (2017)
  12. Tiger Selfies Aren’t Just Stupid, They’re Cruel. Here’s Why, Christina Russo; The Dodo (2015)
  13. This Celebrity-Studded Instagram Petting Zoo Is a Disaster Waiting to Happen, Kate Knibbs; Gizmodo (2016)
  14. VICTORY: Federal Agencies Announce Long-awaited Protections for Captive Big Cats Carson Barylak, International Fund for Animal Welfare
  15. Handling and Husbandry of Neonatal Nondomestic Cats, USDA APHIS
  16. Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance website
  17. International Fund for Animal Welfare website