Tyger! Tyger! burning bright, In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
- William Blake
I’ll never forget my first white tiger. Going to the National Zoo when I was a kid was a once-a-year treat, and one of the highlights of each visit was the tigers. I had to time the visit properly – the cat would only be on display at certain times of the day – and when I reached the railing of the exhibit, it was always a rush. Who would I see? One of the ‘boring” (forgive the jadedness of youth) orange Sumatrans? Or the beautiful white Bengal? Then I remember the surprise of coming one day to find a sign up at the tigers – National Zoo was no longer going to display white tigers.
White tigers were a super novelty back in those days – now it seems that they are everywhere. With them has come a debate among zoo professionals. There are those who see the white cats as great assets for a collection, sure to bring in visitor dollars which can then be channeled towards important conservation work. Then there are those who favor the au natural, dismissing white tigers as freaks. And those, to cat keepers, are fighting words…
The arguments against white tigers are threefold. Firstly, that white mutation (not albinism – white tigers have blue eyes, not pink) is almost nonexistent in nature. When it was first discovered in a white tiger captured in India, it was preserved for future generations through inbreeding (some prefer the more sanitized verb “line-breeding”). Inbreeding brings a reliable stream of white tigers… it also brings some medical issues. The one white tiger I’ve cared for was incredibly cross-eyed, to the point that we’d joke that it was safe to go in with him – he’d never be able to focus on a person to pounce. He was also dumb as a sack of hammers, compared to our orange female, but I’m not sure if I can blame that on the coloration or not…
Secondly, white tigers take up space that could be used for other tigers. The AZA has given conservation priority to three subspecies of tiger – Amur, Malayan, and Sumatran. Tigers are expensive animals to house and feed, and every white tiger takes up resources that could (and arguably should) be going to one of these three subspecies. White tigers tend to be Bengals (or Bengal-Amur crosses) and therefore useless for breeding program purposes. Space is always a commodity in demand in zoos, and white tigers eat up a lot of it.
Lastly, white tigers just aren’t “real” animals in the sense that they are our creation. Sure, once every million births or so one may occur in nature, but we humans have been mass producing them for movies, circuses, and casino acts. What does that say to visitors? Regular animals aren’t cool enough or worthy of conservation, that we need to make them “better”?
White tiger fans, however, will tell you that there is nothing wrong with their cats, thank you very much. Wild whites have been documented (once or twice), it’s true. They also argue that the money and attention that they bring to zoos far outweigh they cost of their food and their housing, and that they are captivating ambassadors for all wild tigers. In other words, that they earn their keep.
I’m no fan of white tigers. Nor are the majority of zookeepers that I know. The public, however, seems to demand them, as they do other “novel” animals (i.e., the explosion of white alligators we’ve seen in recent years). If I was a zoo director struggling to drive the gate, I can’t say that a white tiger on display might not do the trick. Valid arguments can be made for both sides, and the issue is far from black and white… pun intended.