The Tiger Next Door
"Experts estimate that there are now more tigers in private captivity in the USA than there are roaming wild in the world."
This is the opening line from The Tiger Next Door, a compelling documentary about the surprisingly widespread practice of breeding, selling, and owning exotic animals in the United States. The film focuses on Dennis Hill, a big cat owner who resides in Indiana. Hill has been keeping tigers and other exotic animals since the early 1990s. The film follows his fight to keep his tigers, cougars, and bears after a government inspection put his facility in question.
The Tiger Next Door is a fascinating, thought-provoking documentary that presents a well-rounded look at the issue of owning exotic animals, raising many complex ethical questions that don't necessarily have a cut-and-dried answer. Should individuals be allowed to own big cats as pets? Just how much should the government regulate this?
Director and producer Camilla Calamandrei makes her stance clear on TheTigerNextDoor.com, with a “Take Action” page urging viewers to call for the ban of exotic animals as pets. Honestly, I'm not sure how to feel. On one hand, I am uncomfortable with the idea of keeping any animal—bird or lion—in a cage; on the other hand, doting pet owners often take exceptional care of their animals, with vet check-ups, treats, affection, and so forth. Is that a better life than living in the harsh wild? Or are we just indulging the humans that own them? What about keeping endangered animals in captivity to help restore their numbers?
Of course, it's a lot easier to care for a bird than a tiger. Questions were raised about the care Hill provided for his tigers, coming to a head in one explosive scene when Joe Taft of The Exotic Feline Rescue Center—who has taken in many of Hill's animals—argued that many of the cats were in poor health when they arrived at the rescue facility. Watching this film, I got the impression that Hill is extraordinarily devoted to his animals, although his own facility certainly had its flaws. I think if Hill is guilty of anything, it might be denial. It seemed that he couldn't bear to admit when he was overwhelmed with too many animals, which I suspect could have contributed to the alleged health issues. I think his downsized facility will make it easier for him to better care for his beloved cats, although he seems determined to add more tigers to his menagerie.
Personally, I feel that individuals should have the right live their lives as they see fit, so long as they are not causing harm. This is where the issue of animal rights comes in–if an animal is being abused or neglected, then obviously their owner is causing harm. Likewise, it is of grave importance that we safeguard humans from the threat that exotic animals pose—precautions must be taken to ensure that they cannot cause people any harm. Hill says in the documentary that he doesn't care if one of his beloved pets kills him—“What better way to die?”—and it's his right to make that choice. But it's critical that we have fair laws in place to regulate the conditions in which dangerous animals are kept to avoid unnecessary tragedies.
Regardless of your stance on keeping big cats as pets, I think The Tiger Next Door makes it clear that further action must be taken to ensure the health and safety of humans and felines alike.