Not all of the cubs produced in white tiger breeding schemes are white. Inbred, hybridized tiger cubs with an assortment of health problems aren’t good for much of anything except roadside attractions. Some are kept in hopes that they carry a copy of the white tiger gene that could be expressed in offspring. Carole Baskin, director of Big Cat Rescue, has taken in some breeding-project duds, including a cross-eyed white tiger born without an upper lip.
Every white tiger in a zoo is occupying an enclosure and a budget for food and veterinary care that could be used as part of a legitimate breeding program to protect the genetic diversity of endangered subspecies of tigers. There are fewer than 700 Sumatran tigers left on the planet, in captivity or in the wild. The Siberian tiger numbers no more than 1,000, at best. The survival of both subspecies is in jeopardy due to both habitat loss and a looming genetic bottleneck. We could safeguard the genetic diversity of both types of tigers with the cooperation of zoos and perhaps maintain them in captivity until the political issues that threaten their habitat can be alleviated. Some zoos, such as the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and the Minnesota Zoo, do this now as part of a broad species-protection plan. But every zoo that devotes an enclosure to white tigers under the cover of a lie about conservation represents one more place where a legitimately endangered tiger could be kept.
In 2011, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums banned member zoos from breeding white tigers, lions, and cheetahs (PDF). This ban should prevent top-tier zoos from continuing to breed white tigers, and the Cincinnati Zoo has recently stopped selling white tigers. But it doesn’t prevent member zoos from continuing to display the animals. And as long as there is demand, those top-tier zoos may still obtain white tigers from other sources. Meanwhile, the white-washing of white tigers by major institutions helps maintain not only ticket revenue from a misled public but also misguided support for the rescue of a nonexistent endangered species.
As William Conway, former director of the New York Zoological Association put it many years ago, "White tigers are freaks. It's not the role of a zoo to show two headed calves and white tigers."
A white tiger that has already been born does not have a vote in the matter and cannot apologize for existing. Humanity has a collective responsibility to care for the two-headed calves and white tigers that we create for our own entertainment, but do we really need to be creating more of the genetic disasters that pull resources away from truly endangered species? There is no good reason to breed another white tiger. We can choose to keep every remaining white tiger in comfortable isolation. Tigers are solitary in the wild (unlike lions, which are social animals that normally live in prides). They do not need the company of other tigers in order to lead happy lives either in the wild or in captivity. We can choose a future in which white tigers disappear into memory and hopefully one in which truly endangered subspecies of tigers maintain enough genetic diversity to be successfully reintroduced into a wild that can sustain them.