Breeding Dangerous Exotics in the United States

In October 2011, Terry Thompson freed 56 exotic animals from his compound in Zanesville, Ohio including grizzly bears, black bears and Bengal tigers. Then Thompson immediately shot himself, committing suicide. Forty-nine of the animals were shot to death by the police to protect residents and only a few were possible to safely capture. The scene that followed left people around the country asking how a regular citizen with no licensing could own all these exotic animals let alone be in a position to put others in danger and ensure the animals in his care would have to be slaughtered. Director Michael Webber asks these same questions, in particular about the regulations and the exotic animal trade in Ohio in his award-winning documentary, The Elephant in the Living Room.

It is hard for most people to understand why anyone would want to live with an animal that could easily kill you and eat you.  Stories abound of large cats turning on their life-long owners and mortally wounding them. Not even Siegfried and Roy, the famous Las Vegas entertainers who had spent a lifetime with their white tigers were ultimately able to avoid the possibility attack.  Still, people own them, but where do they come from? Who is breeding these animals?

Who is breeding exotic animals?

By some estimates there are as many as 15,000 big cats in the United States and most of these cats were born in the country.  Many experts feel that the excess of exotic animals was caused because in past decades zoos and circuses bred them to have a consistent supply of baby animals on exhibit and then re-home unwanted animals. In states with no regulations against ownership of exotics, these animals might have then ended up in homes that are not necessarily equipped to handle them. There are also facilities around the country that breed large animals for a market that can be rather lucrative. Large predators look pretty benign, in fact many would say they look adorable when they are babies and cubs can garner a nice price.

So is breeding exotics wrong?

Some argue that the breeding of exotics is necessary to species survival. With only 1,000 tigers in the wild and possibly more than 7,000 in captivity, the genetic diversity available could be much more expansive in captivity. Species need genetic diversity in order for populations to be stable. All the same, pet trade animals are certainly not bred with this in mind.

However, animals bred in zoos today are bred responsibly and with a plan in mind. Endangered species in facilities accredited by the international Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) work closely with one another using Species Survival Plans to ensure appropriate breeding. There are 224 facilities accredited by AZA. Each Species Survival Plan is “responsible for developing a comprehensive population Studbook and a Breeding and Transfer Plan which identifies population management goals and recommendations to ensure the sustainability of a healthy, genetically diverse, and demographically varied AZA population.” This means that no animal is bred in captivity without looking closely at what the offspring will add to the genetic diversity and without deciding in advance what facility those offspring will ultimately reside or if it will be possible for them to be released into the wild.


Yet, many people still feel that wild animals belong in the wild and should not be in captivity for any reason. What do you think? Tune it to The Elephant in the Living Room on Nat Geo WILD June 14 at 8PM et/pt and decide for yourself.


  1. ann miller
    June 15, 2012, 9:16 am

    Most of the comments made here make no sense at all. Did you actually watch the movie? Or are you basing your opinion on this clip? The movie is about what can and is being done to help animals in this situation. Open your eyes… If this clip bothers you, watch the movie for the whole story. Then make intelligent comments.

  2. sheryl
    September 27, 2012, 3:33 pm

    I disagree with Ann’s harsh and poorly articulated comment above, and I did in fact watch this documentary. You present interesting facts above, and I for one am undecided on this issue. There’s some valid points on both sides of the argument.

  3. lynne
    July 18, 2013, 12:59 am

    I didn’t see the entire documentary. Which lionness was sophie and why would she die enroute to an animal sanctuary in colorado–too much sedative? That part made me very angry and made me think that Tim didn’t do a really great job of saving these animals.