New Braunfels Herald Zeitung (Newspaper) - May 14, 2000, New Braunfels, Texas
Page SA— Herald-Zeitung — Sunday, May 14, 2000
Tigers are giving birth at Noah s Land Wildlife Park — and some scientists aren ’/ too happy about it
By Amy Underwood Special to the Herald-Zeitung
Just outside of Harwood, Texas, they’re having a baby boom. Actually, it’s a tiger boom, but to Rick Watson, they’re babies. He even has a nursery with baby blankets to prove it.
Watson and his wife Cheri run Noah’s Land Wildlife Park, a 450-acre home to about 400 animals, including five pregnant tigers. With an influx of cubs on the way — litters usually bring three to four cubs — Watson is likely stocking up on film for his Polaroid.
Lined on the wall of Noah’s Land gift shop are photos of guests holding tiger cubs. For $8, plus the price of admission, guests can leave with a photo that Watson says is unique.
“I mean, how many people get to touch or hold a baby tiger?” Watson asked.
For some experts, this question sparks a heated debate. Some feel strongly that the breeding of tigers in captivity is not helping the tiger population but harming it.
“By breeding these tigers and showing people cubs, people go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’,” said Dr. Ron Tilson, zoo conservation director of the Minnesota Zoo. “It’s the most irresponsible thing in the world.”
Tilson is the tiger coordinator for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association’s Species Survival Plan, a conservation program aimed at ensuring the survival of wildlife species. Vital to the organization’s goal is the use of studbooks, which trace the bloodlines of the captive population of a species to ensure maximum genetic diversity.
“Unless the tigers are listed in studbooks, breeding them is not contributing to a conservation effort,” Tilson said.
Mike Dee, general curator of the Los Angeles Zoo, agrees.
“If you breed the animals indiscriminately, you’re not going to know who comes from whom,” Dee said.
Tilson advocates the use of implants to sterilize the females in captivity so that breeding does not occur.
“Implants cost virtually nothing, and prevent the females from cycling,” Tilson said.
With close to 40 tigers at Noah’s Land, the Watsons are often asked why they let the tigers breed. Cheri Watson said they are not actively breeding the tigers, but that preventing the breeding is difficult.
“We just don’t have the facilities to segregate them,” Watson said. “I wouldn’t mind having a litter a year, but I’m not happy about having all of these tigers.”
Watson said they do not sterilize the tigers, but that they do plan to limit the breeding through separation.
“Our best bet is segregation,” she said.
Rick Watson said he will give tigers to parks and zoos if asked. He also said he plans to start a tiger conservation project in India to release some of the tigers back into their natural habitat.
Cheri Watson said she knows the genetics of some of the tigers at Noah’s Land, but because others were taken from situations involving abuse or neglect, it’s difficult to have information on their bloodlines.
Although experts such as Dr. Tilson feel the breeding of tigers contributes to the weakening of the species, the Watsons have a legal right to breed if they choose to.
In Texas, as long as an owner of a wildlife facility has a current permit with the United States Department of Agriculture, breeding is legal, said Dr. Bruce Mammeli, supervisor and care specialist at the USDA office in Fort Worth. Mammeli said Noah’s Land was inspected in January and the license is up to date.
“As long as the animals are
about $100,000 out-of pocket,” Watson said.
With five litters of tiger cubs on the way, and two cubs that were recently bom, the Watsons plan on turning to volunteers for help.
“Yes, we have asked ourselves, ‘What are we going to do with these baby tigers?’ That’s when we start calling volunteers who have had some experience and ask them to take care of a few of them,” Watson said.
Cheri Watson pets “Ellie,” an elk
cared for properly and they meet the minimum standards, they can breed,” said Mammeli.
Mammeli said the breeding of exotic animals is often met with debate.
“I know Texas has been trying to pass legislation to control this type of situation,” Mammeli said.
Mammeli said about 50 owners in Texas are licensed to house large exotic animals. He said the danger involved with these animals is a concern.
“They’re still wild animals,” Mammeli said.
When the tiger cubs are bom, the Watsons take the cubs to their home and feed them. For Rick Watson, raising the cubs is a way of bonding with the animals.
at Noah’s Park petting zoo.
“If you raise them yourself, they look at you as their friend,” Watson said. “If you let the mom raise them, they look at you as food. Big distinction.”
For some experts, however, raising tiger cubs away from the mother is not a way to prevent the animal from becoming dangerous. Mike Dee of the Los Angeles Zoo said tigers are not social cats.
“A 10-pound cub will turn into a tiger that is not only capable of killing the person responsible for breeding it, but the neighbors, too,” Dee said.
Tilson is also concerned with attempts to domesticate tigers.
“There’s no such thing as a pet tiger,” Tilson said. “They’re dangerous.”
“Charlie,” an adult Siberian Tiger.
Although Watson has formed friendships with many of the tigers at the park by caring for them from the start, he recognizes the danger involved with wild animals, and does not go into the cages of tigers he did not raise.
Varying opinions aside, there is no arguing that the care of the animals is not only time-consuming, but costly. With about 400 animals at Noah’s Land, plus about 120 animals ’at their home, the Watsons have to provide 800 pounds of meat a day to feed the animals. Cheri Watson said they depend on nearby ranches for meat.
“We get food from all different sources,” Watson said. “If somebody loses a cow from known causes, we will take it. A big cow will feed everybody for the day. “
Because there are not always available cows for donation, the Watsons are often forced to buy meat.
“Sometimes we go to the grocery store,” she said. “You look for what’s on sale.”
The animals also feed on turkey, pork, and venison, which is expensive. Noah’s Land is non-profit,
but the revenue from admission price — the primary source of revenue at the park — is not enough to pay for the cost of feeding the animals. The Watsons have been forced to use their own resources to keep the park running.
“In the past year, I’ve spent
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