How do you train a tiger?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 6 2003 7:22 PM

How Do You Train a Tiger?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

On Friday, Roy Horn of Siegfried & Roy was violently mauled by one of his trained tigers; he remains in critical condition. The next day New York City police captured a 400-pound Bengal tiger that had apparently been raised from a cub in a five-bedroom Harlem apartment. How do you raise and train a tiger?

It's best to start as young as possible, so your tiger gets used to you: Cubs are born with claws and baby teeth that are sharp enough to cause injury, and they begin to practice life skills such as stalking and pouncing as early as 1 month old, when they weigh around 10 pounds. If a mother tiger isn't available, cubs should be bottle-fed for five to eight weeks on a mixture of milk-replacements and various animal tissues to simulate their natural diet. After that, it's on to a carnivorous meal plan (a grown tiger eats about $150 worth of meat each week). It's important to feed a tiger all parts of an animal—including brains, hair, and stomach—or appropriate supplements to keep its digestive system in good shape.

Tigers, like children and dogs, can be taught to modify their behavior through the skilled application of reward and discipline. Less scrupulous trainers sometimes rely on violent measures, but most get the big cats to behave primarily by providing or withholding food. (Some trainers prefer their tigers fed and docile; others find them more responsive if they're hungry and on edge.) Whatever the teaching system employed, good trainers take care to reinforce their lessons constantly, and they also work to "socialize" their tigers, so the cats become accustomed to different people and places. Siegfried & Roy always had several tigers in the wings at their shows, so the animals would get used to the stress and bustle of the stage.

But no matter how docile a tiger becomes, you can never train away its predatory responses. The tiger that mauled Horn seems to have perceived a critical weakness in him. When Horn tapped the cat on the nose with his microphone to get its attention, it batted his arm. Horn stumbled, and that momentary opening may have triggered the tiger's lunge for his jugular. "If you fell down and hit your head, they would dine on you," says professional trainer Hayden Losenaur. He asserted that tigers professionally managed by skilled trainers are quite safe, but "they don't make good pets, and keeping them in an apartment is just insanity."

When Harlem resident Antoine Yates began bottle-feeding the tiger cub he had somehow acquired, he may not have realized what he was getting into. Ming, his pet, is a mix of the two largest subspecies of tiger, the Bengal, around 450 pounds, and the Siberian, which can weigh up to 700, which may be why a sniper had to rappel down the side of a building to tranquilize the 400-pound creature.

One of the lesser-known challenges of owning a tiger may be fulfilling all the legal requirements. In addition to federal permits required to privately own members of an endangered species, many states and counties have their own laws for tiger owners. One trainer explained that he was not allowed to keep his pet tiger near schools, churches, or campgrounds, and that regulations even stipulate the depth of the concrete in which his perimeter fence is anchored. Acquiring permits to keep a tiger legally in a heavily regulated area like New York City could cost up to $50,000 in licensing fees alone.

Explainer thanks Hayden Losenaur of Serengeti Ranch Co. and Rob Bloch of Critters of the Cinema.

Ed Finn is the director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English at Arizona State University.