Visitors of the Downtown Aquarium rarely get to see this part.
Visitors of the Downtown Aquarium rarely get to see this part.
Photo courtesy of Cheryl Conley

Lawsuit Says Downtown Aquarium Tigers Held in Violation of Endangered Species Act [UPDATED]

The four tigers at Houston's Downtown Aquarium live in poor conditions that violate the Endangered Species Act, according to a federal lawsuit filed in Houston this week by a Montgomery County animal welfare advocate.

Cheryl Conley had sent Landry's a notice to sue in late 2016, prompting Landry's to sue her for defamation. That case was dismissed on free speech grounds, and the restaurant empire was ordered to pay attorneys' fees and $450,000 in sanctions. The judgment is currently on appeal.

Conley has long alleged that, when not on display, the four white tigers are confined to ten-by-ten concrete-floor rooms with little access to sunlight, and have never been outdoors since they were first brought to the Aquarium in 2004. The tiger exhibit also doesn't contain any real trees or any other re-creations of natural surroundings, adding to the animals' stress, the suit alleges.

Conley wants the tigers moved to a "reputable sanctuary that will provide the tigers with a large, outdoor habitat where, for the first time in 13 years, the Aquarium tigers will be able to experience direct sunlight and walk on natural substrates."

The tigers' living arrangements violate generally accepted exhibit practices, the suit alleges, citing a tiger care manual published by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an accrediting organization. (The Downtown Aquarium is a member of the AZA.)

From the suit:

"The tiger exhibit is composed entirely of concrete or similar hard, artificial material. Small windows and a skylight provide the only source of indirect natural light. [It] features a small pool at its center and a fake tree, but contains no permanent naturalistic elements, such as dirt substrates. [It] does not give the tigers any access to the outdoors or opportunities to hide from the public's view." 

Constantly standing or walking on hard surfaces, like concrete, can injure the tigers' "footpads, feet, hips, and other joints," the suit also alleges. (Conley is represented by Houston attorney Kristen Schlemmer, as well as Anthony Eliseuson, with the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund.)

Landry's and the Downtown Aquarium have long defended the tigers' living conditions, and Landry's attorney Steven L. Scheinthal told the Houston Press that an expanded exhibit space "slated to be completed in 2018 will create a new outdoor area that provides our beautiful tigers with an enriching environment, including a waterfall and pool, rock features, and artificial trees for climbing."

If you look closely, you'll see that the dude with the giant cotton swab is actually feeding the tiger, Landry's says.
If you look closely, you'll see that the dude with the giant cotton swab is actually feeding the tiger, Landry's says.
Rendering courtesy Landry's

The expansion will also "provide guests with additional viewing opportunities and provides an immersive experience whereby guests will be able to interact with our white tigers," according to the statement.

Scheinthal also said, "We are highly confident that the lawsuit filed against the Downtown Aquarium lacks merit and that we will prevail."

Unfortunately, Landry's didn't want to answer direct questions — such as why it's taken 13 years for anyone to think about expanding the exhibit.

However, in addition to Scheinthal's statement, Landry's provided two renderings of the planned expansion.

In one of the drawings, a man in a blue T-shirt and khakis appears to be confronting a tiger — which is on its hind legs — with a gigantic Q-tip. Or at least that's how it appeared to us at first blush. When we asked, a Landry's spokeswoman told us, "If you look closely, you will see that the trainer is feeding the tiger." But it's still difficult to tell what kind of food it is. Maybe we'll have to wait for another drawing to clarify that.

Update — October 2, 8:25 a.m.

Another rendering shows Landry's plans to expand the exhibit:

Looks nicer than the current digs.
Looks nicer than the current digs.
Rendering courtesy Landry's

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