The Tiger Surplus

People have captured and displayed wild animals for thousands of years. Some of the earliest documentation of this activity comes from mosaics depicting the menageries, canned hunts and gladiatorial games in the amphitheaters built by ancient Romans across their empire. The popularity of these games is largely responsible for the extinction of certain animal species in parts of the Roman-controlled world. Hunting and transporting wild animals became big business across the Roman Empire for centuries.

Art showing a person on horseback taking a tiger cub from its family
Art showing two men with spears facing a tiger

Over time, wealthy European hunters would capture animals in exotic locations and set up private menageries to display their living trophies. As this practice spread to the US, the menagerie owners would grow bored with their animals—or their fortunes would change—and they would donate their collections to a nearby city as a local attraction or public zoo. The first zoo in the United States was established in Philadelphia in 1873.

Zoos grew in popularity and became a staple part of a city’s public life. By 1924 there were enough zoos to form the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AZA). More zoos needed more animals so professional hunters and dealers filled the demand by importing them from the wild. 

Eventually some of these animals would reproduce successfully in captivity and by the 1950s these captive-born animals were available to new city zoos as they were established across the country. There was no such thing as zoo surplus because there was always a new zoo to take the offspring of captive breeding pairs.

Then a zoo discovered that if you put a window in the “nursery”, people would flock to see the cute ones—the tiger and lion cubs, the baby bears—and then you had to have babies. How could zoos resist the temptation? They didn’t. The constant demand for new babies led to the dilemma of where to put them when they grew too large and the public were clamoring for new babies. 

While old babies languished in cages out back, a new industry grew up to transport animals between zoos. When  the number of zoos began to stabilize because the Animal Welfare Act made them just too expensive to run, the transporters looked for other ways to take the surplus animals, place them, and still make a profit. 

There was a glut of exotic animals that saturated existing markets and suddenly the zoos could no longer count on the transporters and other intermediaries to take their surplus animals.  Everyone was scrambling. 

Enter the hunting ranches, the backyard breeders, and the roadside zoos. Tigers are easy to breed in captivity, and the huge numbers of zoo surplus tigers led to the crazy overpopulation of tigers held by private owners today—7,000. 

Zoo breeding programs and surplus problems continue around the world, but especially in America.