My career as a cat writer began 12 years ago when I learned about a facility on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, that allowed people to interact with chained lions and tigers for a fee. The organization promoted this as a way to educate people about the need for conservation.
I decided to investigate this facility for a potential article. After I arrived, I was informed that the tigers and lions had been defanged and declawed. I paid my fee and entered the cage.
The cats seemed healthy, but bored. I stroked a lion and then a female Siberian tiger.
Suddenly, the owner announced, “Here comes Nikita!” I turned and witnessed one of the most astounding things I have ever seen: A beautiful, 800-pound male Siberian tiger walking toward me. (Male Siberian tigers are the largest in the world and, if overfed, can grow as large as this one.) I reached out and petted the enormous cat. Then, the owner directed Nikita to lie down on the ground so that I could give him a hug.
The experience was simultaneously heartbreaking and exhilarating. I will never forget the thrill of hugging the largest cat in the world, and yet, at the same time, being cognizant that, essentially, he had been deformed so that a rich person could own him. In the end, I did not write an article at all, being fearful that no matter what I wrote, people would still go out for the chance to touch a real tiger.
A few years later, I was interviewing an expert at an accredited cat facility that breeds cats for zoos as part of the Species Survival Plan Program, which helps ensure the survival of wildlife species. This person was a serious conservationist doing remarkable work. I told her about my experience with the big cats.
“That was probably the stupidest thing you have ever done,” she said. “It did not matter that the tiger was defanged and declawed; it would have taken him one second to reach up with his paw and crush your skull.”
Later, I learned that in the span of just one year, 11 people were injured by the big cats at the Ohio facility where I met Nikita. Since that time, there have been several instances of large cats injuring people at similar facilities.
Maybe I should have written that article years ago. Perhaps there would be fewer of these facilities and more tigers in the wild where they belong.
As a sort of reparation for my actions, I make a yearly donation to the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Siberian Tiger Project in memory of Nikita. On many levels, my experience was a mistake. But, it is also a memory I will cherish forever.