Protesters Call for Downtown Aquarium's White Tigers to Be Put in a Sanctuary

When not on public display, the tigers at the Downtown Aquarium live in spartan digs.EXPAND
When not on public display, the tigers at the Downtown Aquarium live in spartan digs.
Photo courtesy of Cheryl Conley

Animal welfare groups are planning a protest in downtown Houston December 19 against what they say is the mistreatment of four white Bengal tigers at the Houston Aquarium.

"The tigers do not have adequate room to walk, run, hunt, or do anything they instinctively would do in the wild," Houston animal welfare advocates alleged in a press release. "These tigers are primarily confined to a concrete room where they lay all day. When not in their concrete holding cages they are on display to the public in yet another concrete cage."

Volunteers from the Florida-based Big Cat Sanctuary and California-based Animal Defenders International are taking part in the protest, according to the release. The groups want the tigers — which they say are the result of inbreeding and are not found in the wild — moved to a sanctuary. (The Texas Humane Legislation Network is not participating in the protest, but a spokesperson said the group supports the removal of the tigers "from their current situation.")

In an email to the Houston Press, Matt Rossell of Animal Defenders International wrote:

"Four tigers exhibited at Houston Aquarium spend their days in 10x10 concrete cells. Unlike wild tigers whose home ranges approach 300 square miles, these tigers never go outside. White tigers are a result of inbreeding (brother/sister or father/daughter), denounced by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in part due to its clear links to various abnormal, debilitating, and at times lethal conditions. Exhibiting white tigers sends the wrong message about conservation and ADI urges the Houston Aquarium to retire these animals to a reputable sanctuary where they will have the space they need to thrive."

The tigers have been a popular attraction at the aquarium, owned by Landry's, since their arrival in late 2004. To address animal welfare concerns, Landry's owner Tilman Fertitta told the Houston Chronicle that the company contributes to a tiger conservation group called WildAid. (A spokesperson for Landry's did not respond to our call for comment.)

The paper also quoted Jim Prappas, described as "Landry's director of biology," who said the tigers are not inbred. 

"Inbreeding means breeding brothers and sisters, and that does create a lot of health issues," Prappas told the paper. "…These tigers aren't inbred. All of the animals that come from the register that the USDA regulates have to have strong genetic lines."

We asked USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa about this registry. She told us, "We do not have any kind of registry, nor do we regulate the actual breeding."

Although the Association of Zoos & Aquariums has accredited the aquatic exhibits, the organization has come out against breeding practices behind white tigers, which can lead to "visual impairments" and an "inability to feed and swallow effectively." [Note: Despite the policy against approval of the presentation of white tigers, a spokesperson for AZA says the entire facility is accredited.]

"Albinism has been associated with a wide variety of health problems and congenital defects, and is regarded as a hereditary defect rather than a desirable trait in wild and most domestic populations," according to a 2011 AZA white paper.

Such breeding practices "are not in adherence" with the AZA board's "policy on the presentation of animals," according to the paper.

The protest is scheduled for 1-5 p.m. at Sesquicentennial Park, in downtown Houston. 


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