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A national debate over the plight of tigers came into local focus last week when Montana-based illusionist Jay Owenhouse brought two rare Bengal tiger cubs to perform at Longview’s Columbia Theatre on Thursday.

The theater received thousands of emails after “Big Cat Rescue,” a Florida animal sanctuary, took opposition to Owenhouse’s show. No protesters appeared to show up, and Owenhouse’s show debuted without a hitch to about 350 attendees.

The conflict raised an elemental question: What is the best way to ensure tigers and other endangered animals have a future on this planet? And what role do zoos and other forms of captivity or management have in preserving them?

Some say tigers will disappear from the wilds in just three or four years, and that zoos and other forms of captivity are the only places they’ll survive. However, many experts say tiger populations are stabilizing and may rebound.

Owenhouse argues his act plays a conservation role by exposing audiences to big cats and creating interest in saving them: “We treat them with respect and dignity. They’re in the show because they like being a part of it,” he said Monday. “If we’re not exposed to these animals, and don’t get a chance to observe them up close, we don’t appreciate them.”

But critics disagree. Lisa Wathne, a spokesperson for the Humane Society of the United States, said that “using tigers in travelling acts serves absolutely no purpose in tiger conservation ... (and) putting them in the middle of a loud, glitzy magic show is entirely unnatural.”

Charismatic cats

Tigers are “charismatic megafauna,” or a species that captures public imagination in a way that environmentalists hope to channel into support for wildlife conservation more broadly.

And the stakes are high for the animals, which are considered endangered (at a high risk of extinction in the wild). Peter Zahler, vice president of conservation initiatives at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, said that in the last century, tigers have lost more than 90 percent of their habitat across India, Bangladesh, Nepal, China and Siberia. In that time, their numbers have declined an estimated 95 percent.

This decline is “mostly driven by habitat loss across Asia and over-hunting of both tigers and their prey,” Zahler said in an email. Poaching, driven in large part by the illicit, billion-dollar market for traditional medicines derived from rare animals, is a key driver, he said.

Zahler also said that while there are fewer than 4,000 tigers in the wild today, that number has “stabilized somewhat” in recent years thanks to protection of territory and anti-poaching efforts. Captive numbers are likely much higher: the World Wildlife Fund found in 2014 that there were roughly 5,000 tigers in captivity in the U.S. alone.

Tiger parts are thought to cure diseases like rheumatism and typhoid fever in some parts of the world, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and tiger bone alone can sell for more than $100 per pound.

Laura Prugh is an associate professor of quantitative wildlife sciences at the University of Washington, focusing on wildlife populations and what causes them to fluctuate or change.

“Personally, I feel like the first emphasis should be on habitat protection and making sure that there is the possibility of maintaining and increasing wild populations,” Prugh said. “Large carnivores like tigers need a lot of space and a good prey base in order to succeed in the wild. They get themselves into trouble when they don’t have enough wild area to roam and end up coming in contact with a lot of people and livestock.”

The illegal wildlife parts trade is exacerbated by habitat loss, Prugh said, since human development of their habitats makes it easier for humans and the big cats to come into conflict.

“So, I think … protecting conservation areas for these animals, (where) there’s relatively little human activity, is going to be really crucial to their longer-term persistence,” Prugh said.

Exhibitionist ethics

Owenhouse says his tigers enjoy traveling and choose to join his family for their shows, and they only perform a few weekends per month and spend the other 20 to 25 days a month in their 2-acre sanctuary in Bozeman, Mont.

Using captive tigers as ‘conservation ambassadors’ can be helpful for conservation efforts, Prugh said, if they’re displayed in an educational manner.

“I do think that zoos and captive breeding programs can be extremely important components of endangered species conservation and recovery,” Prugh said. “(Both) in terms of providing some animals for reintroduction and restoration projects but also serving an educational purpose by educating the public about the issues and the species.”

As to exhibition shows involving tigers: “It would depend on the nature of the show, whether it’s more for the purpose of entertainment or more educational,” Prugh said. “If (Owenhouse is) having the tigers do tricks, circus-type acts, I would say that would probably have fairly limited use in terms for conservation.”

Owenhouse’s tigers played a relatively minor role in his performance Thursday night, occasionally swapping places with Owenhouse and his family in disappearing acts. On stage and to a VIP audience before the show, Owenhouse spoke about the history of conservation efforts for the animals and the importance of maintaining safe wild habitats for them. He said Friday that at a minimum, he gives $500 to tiger conservation efforts from each show, but that amount can rise to $2,500 depending on how many VIP tickets sell.

The wilds vs. captivity

Owenhouse argues there’s another practical reason for keeping tigers in captivity: According to “most experts,” he told a crowd of roughly 40 premium-ticket buyers before the show started, tigers could be extinct in the wild by 2022.

“In a perfect world, would it be great if all wild species continue to thrive in the wild?” Owenhouse said Monday. “Absolutely. But that’s not reality. The fact is the tiger will be gone … They are going to vanish. Some people think (it’s) better they vanish than live in captivity. I don’t think that.”

“I’d say that is a very pessimistic view,” Prugh rejoins. “There isn’t really any empirical evidence to support that. The amount of protected (habitat) area in the world has actually been increasing, not decreasing, and so I think it’s certainly possible that we will be able to put more land toward protection of species like tigers in the future. And there’s a lot of species that have been kind of pulled back from the brink of extinction through conservation efforts.”

While zoos across the planet engage in a vigorous tiger breeding program, non-accredited breeders and big cat owners don’t contribute to survival of tiger species, according to experts, because of risks such as inbreeding, Wathne said. She said that Bhagavan Antle, the South Carolina-based tiger breeder who Owenhouse sourced his tigers from, does not fall within the accredited program.

The late Dr. Ronald Tilson, a researcher and tiger expert who coordinated breeding plans for global tiger conservation, once wrote in support of a Humane Society petition to limit public contact with big cats, arguing that non-zoo, non-accredited tiger breeders can undermine conservation efforts.

Owenhouse said he’s not trying to breed any of his four tigers, due to the complicated work it involves: “(It’s) not my area of expertise. If you’re trying to preserve a genetic line ... it’s a big responsibility to breed properly.”

Humane Society spokesperson Wathne said “if you are going to accept that the only place tigers exist is in captivity, then it should at the very least be ... as natural for them as possible and the least stressful as possible. Stuffing them into a truck and driving them around and using them in a magic show does not qualify.”

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