The White Tiger Myth

There is no such species as the Royal White Bengal Tiger. The name was invented to attract people to a nightclub performance in Las Vegas.

In 1951 a white tiger cub was captured in India after his mother and three orange siblings were killed. He was given to the Maharajah of Rewa who named him Mohan and began a breeding program to create more white tigers. In 1958 Mohan was bred to one of his daughters and the first litter of white tigers was born in captivity.  Mohini, one of that first litter of white tigers, was bought by an American businessman and given to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. 

After a visit with President Eisenhower and a well-publicized country-wide tour, Mohini became a celebrity. The Cincinnati Zoo acquired her and began their own white tiger breeding program. In 1983 Siegfried and Roy purchased 3 white cubs including the first pure white (without stripes) cub for their Las Vegas act from the zoo. White tigers became their signature animal and established the market value for white tiger cubs with black stripes at $30,000 and pure white tigers (no stripes) at $100,000. Siegfried and Roy became the highest grossing act in the history of Las Vegas, performing for 25 years to sold-out audiences. This led generations of Americans to believe that a tiger is no longer a wild animal but a performing pet.

White tiger popularity also gave birth to a breeding binge that emerged from the zoo system into the backyards of animal breeders who constantly tried to breed more white tigers. The white coat is caused by a double recessive gene that occurs in perhaps one out of 10,000 tigers in the wild. In captivity the tiger parents are inbred and only produce one white cub for every 30 born. Cub mortality for white cubs is in excess of 50%, and those who survive suffer from some level of birth defects from crossed eyes to cleft palates to spinal deformities and club feet. 

All white tigers have crossed eyes, whether it shows or not, because the gene that causes the white coat always causes the optic nerve to be wired to the wrong side of the brain. That is another reason white tigers are such a favorite in tiger acts. They are far more dependent on their masters because they can’t see clearly and their reaction time is diminished. Only 1 in 10 of the white cats can perform consistently and those that do are unpredictable because of their genetic impairments.

A white tiger with cosmetic birth defects
Kenny, a white tiger with cosmetic birth defects, rescued by Turpentine Creek

So the next time you see a performance or exhibition with a white tiger, keep in mind there were 299 tigers that didn’t pass the audition and will go back into the breeding system—and if unable to breed will be dumped at some junkyard zoo.

In 1998 Chuck and Joy, two of the three performers in a tiger act called “Cat Dancers” were killed by their white tiger Jupiter. Local police shot and killed Jupiter after he attacked and killed Joy.

Three formally dressed people with a white tiger
Chuck, Jupiter, Joy and Ron Holiday

In 2003 Roy almost died after Montecore, one of his white tigers, grabbed him by the neck during a performance, ending Siegfried and Roy’s long run in Las Vegas.

Siegfried and Roy holding 4 white tiger cubs
Siegfried and Roy performing with pure white tiger cubs

Today there are no white tigers in the wild. The last one was shot by a trophy hunter in 1958. There are 200 white tigers in captivity, the product of nine generations of inbreeding. The market value of a white tiger cub remains at previous levels—and the breeding continues.