New iPhone App Aims To Prevent Big Cat Abuse

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As she tries to settle into her new sanctuary, Nikita’s amber-colored eyes still show the history of abuse the 14-year-old African lioness has endured throughout her life.

Scars cover her elbows from years of being chained to a concrete floor. She was originally rescued during a drug bust at a crack house. Big Cat Rescue, one of the largest accredited sanctuaries in the world, nursed her back to health with years of therapy and care.

Tiger Selfie, a newly launched iPhone application, is attempting to educate people about the abuse big cats like Nikita suffer at the expense of entertainment. The app enables users to insert images of different types of tigers into their personal photographs. The pictures can immediately be shared via email, Twitter and Instagram.

Wildlife activists believe tiger selfies encourage people to take-in cubs at a young age, and they grow up to be neglected, mistreated and abandoned.

Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, believes Tiger Selfie will help the nonprofit disseminate their mission statement.  

“Our mission is to end the trade in big cats, and the number one reason there are so many big cats being abused in horrible ways is because people will pay to have their picture taken with a cub,” Baskin said. “So if we can stop that, we can stop 99 percent of the abuse.”

Studies of two roadside zoos, Tiger Safari and Natural Bridge Zoo, revealed tiger cubs exploited for photographic opportunities were treated inhumanely, according to The Humane Society. The mistreatment includes underfeeding, physical discipline and over handling.

There are other exhibitions within the entertainment industry that mistreat and profit off of tiger cubs, according to a report found on Big Cat’s website.

Screenshot of Tiger Selfie app.
Screenshot of Tiger Selfie app.

Another case showed 90 tigers were found dead and dozens more starved and barely alive after being left behind by a cub handling exhibitor who operated a breeding facility in California, according to the report.

“Now you don’t have to be rich enough to fly to Thailand to get your photo with a drugged tiger,” according to the app. “You don’t have to be stupid enough to jump into a cage with a tiger. And you don’t have to know a crazy recluse who lives in a cabin with lots of explosives and happens to have a tiger.”

Screenshot of Tiger Selfie app.

Chris Wilson, who created Tiger Selfie, said the app’s purpose is to discourage people from paying to get their picture taken with live tiger cubs. He hopes it will stop those who own cubs from breeding and keeping them in unhealthy conditions.

A loophole in Florida’s ban on Class I wildlife, classified by their ability to harm humans, allows individuals with a USDA license to keep exotic animals, Baskin said. Licenses can be obtained by completing an application and paying a $40 fee.

Big Cat Rescue has proposed a bill designed to end the private possession of big cats since 2011. They plan to reintroduce the bill in 2015 with Republican and Democratic sponsors. The proposed bill would allow people who possess Class I wild animals to keep them until they die of natural causes, but cannot buy or breed more.

“None of the exotic cats in private possession serve any conservation purpose,” according to the Big Cat Rescue.  “In fact, the legal trade in these animals in the U.S. provides a smokescreen for illegal poaching and trade.”

Big Cats In The Entertainment Industry

Big cats used for photo opportunities are usually severely drugged and kept in unhealthy conditions while the entertainment industry tells visitors they are trained to be docile, according to one green planet.

“Don’t support it,” said Susan Bass, director of public relations for Big Cat Rescue. “You’re giving them more money to breed more cats.”

Bass said the cats are often discarded as backyard animals, put on the illegal black market or used to breed more cats for pictures.

Bengali, a male Bengal tiger, walks towards the gate of his enclosure as he waits to be transported to another location in the sanctuary. When he originally arrived at Big Cat Rescue shortly after retiring from being used as a circus act, they were told he could kill someone because he was so confrontational. He is said to be much happier now because of his improved surroundings.
Bengali, a male Bengal tiger, walks towards the gate of his enclosure as he waits to be transported to another location in the sanctuary. When he originally arrived at Big Cat Rescue shortly after retiring from being used as a circus act, they were told he could kill someone because he was so confrontational. He is said to be much happier now because of his improved surroundings. Komal Junejo / WUFT

“There are some people out there who don’t understand that when you are paying to get your picture taken with a cub, you are sentencing that cub to a lifetime of misery,” Baskin said.

Four-month-old lion cub Mangus was kept on a liquid-only diet so he would stay small for photographs with visitors. The circus also removed his claws and canine teeth to prevent him from harming visitors.

Baskin said cubs are fed an unnatural diet because they can only be used in the entertainment industry for a few weeks. Once the cubs are 12-weeks-old, their futures are uncertain.

“After the 12-week window, and they’re too large for people to hold and take pictures with, what happens to them? Nobody really knows,” Bass said. “Nobody really keeps track.”

Tigers are then often left with nowhere to go or end up in brutal conditions, such as the one Nikita was found in.

“None of the tigers are going back to the wild, none of them serve any conservation value,” said Baskin. “It’s all because people pay to have their picture taken with a cub.”

The Sanctuary & The Selfie App

Big Cat Rescue is a 67-acre facility in Tampa, Fla., and houses more than 80 lions, tigers, bobcats, cougars and other cat species.

The staff was originally hesitant to support Tiger Selfie.

They feared viewers would see the images and want to play with real tiger cubs, and tiger cub pimps could potentially use it against the non-profit organization if the rescue endorsed the app.

After speaking to Baskin, Wilson updated the app to send a stronger message. The tiger selfie appears briefly before the animated GIF dissolves into a message expressing the wrongfulness of taking photographs with wild animals for entertainment purposes.

The new version was made available on July 23.

Fifty percent of proceeds from purchasing the app, which costs 99 cents, will go to wildlife sanctuaries like Big Cat Rescue.

“The idea is to have a picture with a tiger without actually paying someone to have your picture taken with a real tiger,” Wilson said.

He hopes Tiger Selfie will discourage people from paying breeders for photographs, and benefit sanctuaries instead.

“A lot of times what happens is that they’ll kill the mother and take the cub and keep it in captivity for entertainment purposes,” Wilson said. “If the money goes away, there’s really no reason for them to do that.”

Baskin hopes the app will reach people who think tiger selfies are cool and turn them into advocates, or as she calls them “advocats” for change.

“Once they get the message that the cubs end up being abused their whole lives, no one that really loves tigers is going to participate in this trade,” Baskin said.

About Komal Junejo

Komal is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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