Growing up in Tomah, Wisconsin, just a couple of blocks away from the fairgrounds, I was no stranger to the county fair. As a lover of animals, visiting the horses, goats and other farm animals was always one of the highlights of my summer. Recently, I was back home visiting my parents, and I decided to take a walk over to the fair. Instead of being an enjoyable experience, what I saw brought tears to my eyes. All of the usual exhibits were present, but there was a new addition to the Monroe County Fair this year: tigers. From my count, there were six adult tigers and two babies, along with two baby leopards.
The attraction is owned and run by a man named Joe Schreibvogel, founder and park director of G.W. Exotic Animal Memorial Park in Wynnwood, Okla. Anyone interested in learning more about the reputation following this man and his roadside zoo and traveling show should do an Internet search for "G.W. Exotic Animal Memorial Park" and do a little bit of reading. I challenge you to find a piece of positive information written. He operates his shows under close to 20 different names, and due to all of the negative publicity he has received, one might conclude that he operates his business under so many names in an effort to confuse the public and those hiring him for appearances and fairs. Since the opening of the park, there have been numerous charges filed surrounding the care of his animals, and currently Schreibvogel is under investigation for the deaths of 23 tiger cubs in 2009-10.
What is he doing with so many tiger cubs in the first place? He needs tiger cubs to bring on his travels across the United States, stopping at fairs and malls, where people can spend several minutes with the cubs and have their picture taken. It is all done under the pretense of educating people about tigers, discouraging them from owning exotic animals as pets, and to save the species. After observing the display at the fair this past weekend for over an hour and on two separate occasions, I witnessed minimal efforts to educate anyone about anything. There was a black and white copy of some facts about tigers on the table, but that was about it. The fact sheet wrapped things up with a claim that a percentage of all money raised would go toward conservation efforts. I asked Joe Exotic, the name he sometimes goes by, what that percentage was specifically, and he would not answer that question.
What I saw on Saturday at the fair bothered me so much that I felt compelled to go back on Sunday to learn more. I had done some research on the Internet, and the words I read left me sad, heartbroken and wondering how an operation like this is even allowed. Of course, I know that not everything you read in the media is true, so I wanted to hear it from the source. My parents raised me to stand up for what I believe in, so when Joe Schreibvogel was standing across from me, I took the opportunity to ask him some questions about what he does.
I started off by asking about the baby tigers. I wondered what anyone viewing this exhibit should have been asking themselves: where is their mother? The answer is that the cubs are taken away from their mothers within the first 8-10 days so that they can bond with humans instead. The USDA prohibits public interaction with tiger cubs before the age of eight weeks because their immune system has not yet developed enough, and beyond the age of 12 weeks because after that age they can be too dangerous. That leaves just four weeks when they can interact with the public and have their picture taken. Tiger mothers are fiercely protective of their young, and typically in the wild, baby tigers stay with their mother until they are about two years old. But the baby tigers at the Monroe County Fair were taken from their mothers just as their eyes were first opening so they can be driven all over the country for four weeks of photo opportunities.
During our conversation, Schreibvogel suggested taking an infant tiger away from its mother is the same as a parent sending their child to daycare. Seeing as how that baby tiger and mother will never again be reunited, I'm not sure how he can even begin to compare the two. It's certainly not as if he's returning the babies back to their mothers at the end of each day.
What happens when the tigers hit the 12-week old mark and are too old for the public to safely interact with them? Some go back to Oklahoma to live in a cage for the rest of their life, some are sold to small zoos, while others are sold or given away to individual people who think it might be fun to own a tiger as a pet. These tigers are being born to be exploited for four weeks, and then to live a life in captivity in questionable surroundings. Joe Schreibvogel will tell you it's to keep the species around, to ensure their survival. I would disagree. The six tigers who travel the country in cages barely bigger than they are would disagree as well. Training a tiger to perform circus tricks is about as far from a natural life as you can get.
Maybe you're reading this and thinking, "Who cares? It's just a tiger." It's that type of attitude that allows the abuse and exploitation of animals and can eventually lead to the extinction of a species. There are less that 3,500 tigers remaining in the wild, and somewhere close to 5,000 in captivity. That number is uncertain because the number of tigers being breed in the United States by private owners is not closely monitored. The truth is, 90 percent of tiger habitat in the wild has been destroyed, and if something isn't done soon, many species of tigers will be extinct in the next 10 to 15 years. However, I do not believe breeding tigers to be exploited at fairs and malls is the answer. Carting baby tigers around the country is completely legal, but is it ethical? Just because something is legal, that doesn't mean it's necessarily the right thing to do. I think that if Joe Schreibvogel really cared about educating the public about tigers and saving them from extinction, he would be going about it in a much different way. True conservationists, like Jane Goodall, are setting the example on how to appropriately go about educating people and saving a species of animal. You surely would not see her breeding baby chimps, stealing them from their mothers, and trucking them around the country to fairs for people to pet and take pictures of.
The laws in this country and others need to change in order to protect animals like tigers from being exploited. But until we as a society change, animals will continue to pay the price. If fairs and malls and the general public hand their money over to people like Joe Schreibvogel, then he's going to continue to bring baby tigers into the world. Maybe he does love his animals. Maybe he honestly believes that what he is doing is in the best interest of the tigers. I disagree, and I ask you to inform yourselves before you support something like this in the future.
If you agree that tigers are living creatures that deserve to be protected and respected, then take action by boycotting displays at fairs, circuses and similar events where animals are being exploited for entertainment purposes. Please join me in asking members of the Monroe County Fair Board to not bring tigers or any other exotic animals to the fair ever again. Show your support by signing this petition.