A national animal welfare group and a local big cat sanctuary are objecting to a white tiger exhibit coming to the Dakota County Fair, alleging that the animals lead a tormented existence on the road and belong to an exhibitor with a history of improper care.
“[The tigers] are denied everything that is natural to them,” said Lisa Wathne, manager of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States. “Most of the exhibitors ... have truly miserable records of animal care and that’s certainly the case with All Things Wild.”
Illinois-based All Things Wild plans to bring White Tiger Discovery, an exhibit that charges customers $3, to the Dakota County Fair in Farmington on Aug. 5-11. In a letter delivered last month, the Humane Society asked Dakota fair organizers to reconsider hosting the exhibit.
Humane Society officials claim that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued 21 animal care citations during inspections between 2010 and 2018, including evidence of poor veterinary care, inadequate fencing, unsafe handling of big cats during shows and inexperienced employees. It also alleges that All Things Wild employs a man with a revoked USDA license.
Mike Whittman, who represents All Things Wild’s legal, accounting and logistics department, said the traveling zoo has fixed all past issues identified by the USDA and that he believes it has had a clean record since 2015. He said that two of its eight white tigers typically travel and will visit eight sites this year.
“It’s all about whichever animals like to do it,” he said, adding that some tigers enjoy being “eye candy.”
Whittman said the animals aren’t kept in a small space while they’re exhibited, that their trailers are “extremely comfortable” and that stops often are scheduled to minimize travel time. The animals sleep 20 hours a day and don’t need to roam since food is provided, he said.
But officials with the Minnesota-based Wildcat Sanctuary say they oppose the exhibit for the same reasons as the Humane Society. And some local residents have their own concerns; Lois Glewwe of South St. Paul wrote on Facebook that she was “ashamed that Dakota County would even consider modeling this kind of abusive display of living creatures.”
R. Andre Bell, a USDA spokesman, confirmed that zoo owner Michael Todd has a USDA license under the business name All Things Wild Line Farms and Ponies.
USDA inspection reports are usually available online, Bell said, but because All Things Wild is a homestead business — operated out of the same place the licensee lives — the USDA can’t post inspection data unless a Freedom of Information Act request is filed, which takes 20 days to fill.
Whittman said the Humane Society has a history of making false claims, so “we just kind of ignore” the group. “We take our animal care very, very seriously,” he said.
Whittman said a recent “explosion” of the wild tiger population can be attributed to increased awareness and education. But Wathne said studies show that moving the big cats from fair to fair has no positive effect on the public or their perception of big cats.
Tammy Thies, founder and executive director of the Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, said such exhibits exploit tigers and often are unsafe for the public. Sanctuaries see the fallout from roadside zoos and are overrun with tigers, she said, taking them in when owners can’t care for them or are forced to give them up.
Thies said she hopes people start demanding new kinds of fair attractions. “If they really knew the dark side ... I don’t think they would view it as family entertainment,” she said.
Pete Storlie, vice president of the Dakota County Agricultural Society, said he couldn’t comment on the exhibit because the society operates as a board. The group, which runs the fair, will discuss the exhibit at a meeting Monday.
Storlie said the white tiger exhibit was chosen because the animal is a novelty, a Bengal tiger bred to have a white or near-white coat: “We’re a county fair. We try and find attractions ... that people don’t typically get to see.”
When asked if he was concerned about the tigers’ welfare, including whether the exhibit was ethical, he said that was a “dangerous rabbit hole to go down” because some people object to confining even domestic animals like cows. All organizers can do, he said, is what’s legally allowed.
“We have to trust the system,” he said.