Lions and Tigers and Ocelots, oh my!

With the Duke Conservation Society, I recently visited the Carolina Tiger Rescue, located in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Once very well-known as a breeding facility called the Carnivore Preservation Trust, the rescue changed its name in 2009 to reflect its changed mission—to act as a “forever home” to rescued carnivores. The 55-acre sanctuary hosts several individuals from ten species of animals: tigers, lions, servals, cougars, caracals, ocelots, kinkajous, leopards, bobcats and coatimundis.1

We received a tour of the facility, where we saw many of these species. The most surprising thing about the tour was how active the cats were. Every time I’ve seen big cats at a zoo they have been hiding somewhere in their enclosure, sleeping. Here, all of the animals were not only awake, but active and curious. They came right up to the fence to check us out, paraded back and forth, and rolled around on the ground, just looking for attention. My personal favorite was Rajah the tiger, who followed our group along the entire fence line as we were walking to the next enclosure.

One of the lions at the sanctuary.

Throughout the tour, we learned why some of these animals were here, as well as the overall threats to big cats throughout the world. Approximately 80% of wild cat species are declining in population, and 16 species are listed as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.2 Of all the big cats, the tiger is closest to extinction. While there were once as many as 100,000 tigers roaming throughout Asia, today there are estimated to be as little as 3,900.3 In fact, there are far more tigers in captivity than remaining in the wild—roughly 5,000 tigers in the United States alone.4

How did this happen? Well, the major problems plaguing all big cats have caused steep population declines: loss of habitat to deforestation, conflicts with humans, the wildlife trade, climate change, and loss of prey.2 These problems may seem pretty remote, but look a little closer and you’ll discover that major threats to these species exist right here in the United States. Namely, just how easy it is to own a tiger. Four states – Alabama, Nevada, Wisconsin and, yes, North Carolina – have no laws on keeping wild animals as pets.5 Many animals end up in roadside zoos, “pay-to-play” facilities or maybe even in your neighbor’s backyard.

On the tour, we met several animals who came from exactly these situations. Caprichio, the largest tiger at the rescue, arrived with two other tigers and 13 other animals from a facility out west that shut down. He has a bowed-back leg due to malnutrition as a cub, indicating that he likely came from what I just referred to as a “pay-to-play” facility. These facilities are interested only in cubs, because that’s what people pay to take cute photos with. As evidenced by Caprichio, the living conditions in these facilities are typically unsuitable—the animals are not well taken care of and once they grow up they are no longer needed.

We also met Rajah the tiger, who as a cub was found with his sister Kaela roaming along a county road outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. They wandered into two different counties, where two different animal control units responded and picked them up. It is unclear how they got there, but it is likely that they were pets that either escaped or were released. Essentially, Rajah is a direct result of the lack of legislation around the pet trade in North Carolina.

Looking at pictures of these animals or seeing them in zoos, it is easy to get wrapped up in how cute and cuddly they look. In reality, these are wild animals that are simply not suitable as pets. Now, you probably don’t own a tiger, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to help make the world a better place for big cats. Be wary of the zoos you do choose to visit: Are they accredited? Do they have adequate facilities? Be aware of the products you use as well and choose ones that are more sustainable—much of the remaining tiger habitat is being converted to palm oil plantations, an ingredient which is in over 50 percent of consumable goods (CTR).6 And at the very least, support the Carolina Tiger Rescue! Visit, donate or volunteer your time like our group did (we helped clear a new trail, making travel throughout the sanctuary for the staff a bit easier).

Duke Conservation Society visits and volunteers at the Carolina Tiger Rescue.

Upon visiting, it was clear to see how dedicated and loving the staff and volunteers are towards the animals. In fact, so dedicated to their well-being that there is a strict no-touch policy with all the animals, except in the case of veterinary care. Carolina Tiger Rescue is an amazing organization, but hopefully someday their mission will be fulfilled and they will no longer be needed: a day when wild cats are living in their native habitat and are not exploited by humans.


  1. “Our Animals,” Carolina Tiger Rescue, November 15, 2018,
  2. “Big Cat Threats,” See the Wild, November 15, 2018,
  3. “Tiger”, Panthera, November 15, 2018,
  4. “More Tigers in American Backyards than in the Wild”, World Wildife Fund, July 29, 2014, accessed November 15, 2018,
  1. “State Laws Exotic Cats”, Big Cat Rescue, January 29, 2018, accessed November 15, 2018.
  2. “Tiger”, Carolina Tiger Rescue, November 15, 2018,