21st Century Conservation
I have spent more than 30 years of my life developing safe proven training programs for both handlers and animals. At TIGERS and the Rare Species Fund, we endorse an interactive approach to animal ambassadorship. Our highly structured program of intensive socialization, careful breeding and cutting edge enrichment ensures that well adjusted and happy animals become model citizens who are flourishing in a human environment. These captive-born animals will never be introduced into the wild. Understanding their species-specific needs and the employment of carefully designed, interactive husbandry techniques allows them to thrive in captivity. Scientific research has shown a myriad of benefits captive wildlife can experience through regular human interaction. Animals who have not had the opportunity to become comfortable and trusting in human interactions can become stressed, anxious, and possibly problematic in the execution of the simplest captive care and veterinary tasks. We are invested in training well socialized ambassadors, comfortable in their lives, to represent species that we are actively working to conserve in the wild.
Untrained, unsocialized animals are stressed and fearful and don’t make good ambassadors. Only the most tractable and well trained animals become the Animal Ambassadors of TIGERS/RSF. Our ambassadors provide a window to a world that most Americans will never witness first hand. Our program creates a powerful experience that engenders the human-animal connection. People who feel connected to animals in a tangible way are much more likely to support conservation efforts in the wild. The TIGERS/RSF Animal Ambassador program has raised more than $1,000,000 for small on-the-ground conservation projects we support around the globe.
The Politics of Division
Unknown to many, the role of animal ambassadors has become a point of division within the zoological community. The reason for this split is the growing influence of animal rights behemoth, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), over zoo policy at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the largest zoological trade association in the U.S. The HSUS believes in a hands off approach, preferring captive animals behave as if wild. Ignoring the essential role that captive conservation programs play in combatting extinction, they believe that zoos should transition to the role of animal “sanctuaries”, where the remaining captive animals would live out their lives until they die, completely eliminating AZA’s long standing Species Survival Plan (SSP) programs, and completely ignoring the success of multiple captive breeding programs of endangered species around the world. HSUS has been anti-zoo until just recently when they identified an opportunity to gain influence at AZA. HSUS advocates the elimination of all captive breeding projects, and wants all captive animals to be treated as wild (and expendable) animals, regardless of the inherent dangers potentially posed for handlers and the public.
Ironically, most of the accidents with big cats, lethal and otherwise, have occurred at AZA zoos that have adopted this “wild animals in captivity” model; most notably, San Francisco Zoo in 2007 when a tiger killed a patron and injured two others— and more recently, Palm Beach Zoo in 2016 when a tiger killed a zookeeper.
I attribute the perfect safety record here at TIGERS/RSF to the fact that we have evolved our zoological model to focus on socialization, training and rigorous enrichment opportunities, ensuring that our animals are healthy and happy in a “captive setting.” Why any institution would intentionally ignore an animal’s needs in captivity to the point where it is dangerous to feed, move or provide vet care, is incomprehensible. Yet this ignorant policy of isolation is exactly what HSUS is attempting to force on zoos across the country.
TIGERS/RSF Professional Handlers
At TIGERS/RSF we don’t have inexperienced keepers and interns caring for our animals as is routine at many AZA zoos. Our program of training professional handlers is unequaled in the zoo world. We receive hundreds of applications for our apprentice program every year, but only accept a very small handful of individuals. Those few that meet our exacting requirements commit to working 365 days a year, long hours, for a minimum of two years. There are no days off. Because developing hands-on, interactive relationships with animal ambassadors is a full-time commitment, apprentices work without expectation of days off or vacation. The first few years of training to be a TIGERS/RSF professional handler consist of doing non-animal-contact chores, all the while, observing the animal body language. Observing these behavioral nuances helps apprentices establish a foundation of true species understanding that later interaction may be built.
Working as a professional handler at TIGERS/RSF requires unwavering dedication and years of training. The lifestyle is rigorous and trainees are expected to maintain the physical standards of a professional athlete. Diet and regular exercise are mandatory. It takes five to ten years to become a novice trainer at TIGERS/RSF. Only this kind of dedication, discipline and training can produce a professional handler that is able to provide the type of consistency, understanding, and experience necessary to safely interact with Animal Ambassadors in a way that enriches the animals’ lives and brings the message of conservation to the public.
Message of Conservation
Having been featured in popular media such as PBS and National Geographic documentaries, children’s books, music videos and feature films, our Animal ambassadors have attained celebrity status. Their high profile and charisma have inspired millions of Americans to take a greater interest in conserving rare and endangered species. Our handler training, unblemished safety record, and superior enrichment opportunities have set the stage for our animal ambassadors to happily, safely meet world conservation leaders, state legislators here in South Carolina, members of the public, and even members of the U.S. Congress. Wherever we go, the Animal Ambassadors of TIGERS/RSF carry the message of conservation to America.
Watch this slow motion video of tigers running at full speed as part of the TIGERS/RSF Animal Ambassador enrichment program.