MONTREAL – Tigers, once best known as the stealthy predator of the jungle, are more likely to be found these days prowling a backyard enclosure in the United States as a status symbol.
That’s something that surprised Montreal filmmakers Francis Delfour and Sebastien Tetrault when they were making “The American Tiger,” to be broadcast Thursday on CBC-TV’s “The Nature of Things.”
Tigers living in captivity number between 5,000 and 10,000, the filmmakers say. Roughly 3,000 tigers now live in the wild.
The filmmakers got interested in the subject when they saw a news item a few years ago about a 400-pound pet tiger found in a New York City apartment building.
It took 20 police officers to sedate and remove the beast, which had been kept by its owner since it was a cub.
“Thirty, 40 years ago, it was seen as something cool and hip to have a tiger as a pet,” Delfour says.
However, that has changed since environmental issues have gained prominence.
“Having a tiger today is like driving a Hummer through a bicycle lane,” Tetrault quipped.
The first tigers were brought to the U.S. in the 1900s by circuses and, soon, cute little cubs were showing up in people’s homes as there were no controls on breeding or sales.
Tiger ownership was regarded as little more than an oddity until 2003 when Las Vegas entertainer Roy Horn was mauled on stage by one of his big cats.
Similar incidents spurred calls for bans on private ownership and breeding, including an attempt at legislation pushed by actor Tippi Hedren, best known for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
There are no federal laws covering tigers in Canada either, although the debate and the tiger population here isn’t as big a deal.
“The phenomenon is less important (here) than in the United States,” Tetrault said, noting some zoos and sanctuaries have tigers. “You don’t have the same fascination with showmanship of the tigers. You don’t have entertainers using them at the same level that you have in the United States.”
The U.S. debate is being argued on more than an animal rights and conservation basis — there are also economic arguments being made. The animals are used in the entertainment industry and that means jobs.
“The American tiger issue is a very sensitive one,” Tetrault says, noting it took some coaxing to get private owners to talk because they were leery of bad publicity
He noted the private owners are also playing the conservation card, suggesting that the captive tigers could be used to help repopulate the wild.
“The private owners of these animals are saying they are keeping the animal alive, (that) it’s better to have it in captivity than having no tigers at all,” he said.
The captive tigers generally live longer that their wild counterparts and are fatter. Many of them are a mixture of different subspecies and scientists often dub the pampered critters “junk tigers.”
Reintroducing them to the wild is being considered as a conservation method to preserve the species but it’s still unknown if it’s possible, for example, to teach the tigers bred in captivity to hunt.
Both Tetrault and Delfour saw the attraction of owning a tiger as they made the film.
“We were in close contact with those animals and that’s an incredible feeling,” said Delfour. “Your heart starts to beat faster.”
He compared the relationship between many owners and their tiger to the one some people have with their tabby.
“When they’re with their owners, they seem like they’re big, furry, cuddly animals,” Delfour said. “It’s like having a big cat in your house.
“Their relationship with their owners, it’s gentle and responsive. You can forget really easily that those are very dangerous animals.”
But the filmmakers and their crew never forgot the maneater could very easily turn them into dinner and strict protocols were followed when around the animals.
Tetrault says he figures that only zoos will be able to own tigers in a few decades.
Both men hoped their film would clear up some of the myths still circulating about the majestic beasts.
“We still learn that tigers are free wild cats roaming the jungle of Asia,” Delfour said. “That’s not true anymore.”