As a Global Ambassador for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), I’ve known for years that there are more tigers in captivity in the United States than remain free in the wild today. Hearing this stunning fact never fails to shock me.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing two white tigers up close during my time with IFAW. Upon my first encounter, I was struck by their beauty and recall thinking these were the most magnificent animals I had ever seen. When I learned the truth, I was both heartbroken and infuriated. White tigers are not a distinct subspecies at all, nor are they actually found in the wild.

These tigers are specifically the result of inbreeding and are often born with severe deformities and health conditions that lead to a lifetime of chronic pain and suffering. The reason you don’t often see them on popular big cat Instagram accounts is because they are often euthanised or hidden away.

If you visit a facility or animal display that is marketed as a “sanctuary,” but which allows you to physically interact in some way with a tiger, lion or other dangerous feline – that is not a true sanctuary. These businesses will claim close ties to conservation. The reality however is that they do nothing to assist in that conservation—they do nothing to help their animals’ counterparts in the wild. Their practices, claims, and sadly, the messages they deliver to the public day in and day out, are fraught with dangerous messages that only continues the cycle of suffering for these captive animals. A true sanctuary values the well-being of the animal and ensures its complete separation from the public and often from the animal’s keepers as well.

Let me be clear. The tiger cubs you see on Instagram often being fed from a bottle or posing for a photo were not “rescued from the wild”—rather, they are likely products of speed-breeding, where animals are bred in unnaturally short periods of time to maximise profit and cub numbers. Atop that, they are constantly mistreated in other ways as well, including being deprived of food or ‘formula’ to ensure they will suckle at the right moment. In short, it is reprehensible.

IFAW continues to rescue big cats in need across the United States and is working to rein in the United States trade in captive exotic felines by advancing the Big Cat Public Safety Act – federal legislation that would end the private ownership of big cats. We’re also asking people across the globe to pledge to take safe selfies that respect animals, not endanger them.

MINKA KELLY / Actress and IFAW Global Ambassador

Banner: A white tigress named ‘Joella’ rescued from a closing facility in Arkansas and moved to the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. Photo IFAW

July 2021