(CNN) – In recent days, the United States has been captivated by the search for a tiger that escaped in a Houston neighborhood. However, the fact is not as exotic as we might believe.
There are more tigers in captivity in the United States than in the wild worldwide, experts say.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that about 5,000 of these big cats live in captivity in the country, although experts in animal welfare say that it is difficult to handle precise numbers. That figure is compared to about 3,900 wild tigers left in the world, experts estimate.
Most of the tigers in the United States are in backyards, breeding facilities and in small theme parks or highway attractions, says the WWF. Only about 6% are in accredited zoos, the group says.
The actual number of captive tigers in the United States may be higher because hundreds are raised each year for wildlife attractions, says Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue. This is an animal sanctuary in Florida made famous by the Netflix series “Tiger King.”
Animal advocates have long criticized the private ownership of tigers and other big cats, calling it reckless and inhumane.
“Many of these private tiger owners are not properly trained to care for wild animals, leaving the animals vulnerable to abuse and exploitation,” said WWF. “These facilities often allow public contact with tigers, including photo shoots and playtime with tiger cubs.”
“No tiger should be in a backyard or basement,” Baskin told CNN this week when asked about the missing tiger in Houston. “The only reason people keep tigers as pets is to try to show off to others.”
In many states it is legal to have a tiger in the backyard
The Humane Society says the lack of uniform laws makes it easy to access exotic animals in many states.
People must obtain a license from the Department of Agriculture to keep tigers for commercial purposes, but there are no federal requirements of that type for those who want to keep them as pets.
Without a federal umbrella law, the possession of wild animals is governed by a patchwork of state regulations.
Some 20 states prohibit the private ownership of some exotic animals such as big cats. Other states require residents to obtain a permit to possess these animals.
And others, including Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, and WisconsinThey do not have laws against keeping dangerous wild animals as pets.
In Texas, a resident can keep a tiger if they have a certificate of registration issued by the local animal control office and at least $ 100,000 of liability insurance to pay for property damage or injuries. Restrictions do not apply to accredited zoos and aquariums.
It is not uncommon to see escaped big cats
Sightings of escaped big cats have made headlines many times. In fact, there have been nearly 800 incidents involving exotic felines in captivity in the United States since 1990, said Baskin of Big Cat Rescue.
In February, Texas authorities rescued a tiger during a snowstorm near San Antonio. They named her “Elsa” after the character in the Disney movie “Frozen.” Elsa was a person’s pet and was wearing a harness when she was found in freezing temperatures, authorities said.
The owners were cited for a misdemeanor and the tiger was taken to an animal sanctuary.
In 2011, the owner of a wild game reserve in Zanesville, Ohio, released dozens of tigers, lions, bears and other large animals, which roamed the forests and nearby neighborhoods. What followed was a night of terror and chaos in which authorities shot and killed 49 of the animals to protect nearby residents. That total included 18 tigers and 17 lions.
As a result of what happened, Ohio passed a law that prohibits the possession of dangerous wild animals, including big cats.
A federal bill would ban private ownership of exotic animals
In December, the House of Representatives approved the project of the Public Safety Law for Big Cats that seeks to prevent unlicensed people from keeping tigers, lions, jaguars and other wild animals.
The law came after “Tiger King,” a popular docuseries about a big cat keeper in Oklahoma, drew attention on the issue.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers last month introduced a version of the bill in the Senate.
On the other hand, in 2016 the United States tightened regulations on the ownership of tigers in captivity under the Endangered Species Act, making it difficult for tigers to be trapped in networks of illegal wildlife trade.