Characteristics and Behavioral Trails of Exotic Cats



It should first be stated that, unless the individual seeking knowledge about the emotions and feelings of exotic cats has the correct motivation, this article would be a waste of time to read. If your desire is to dominate a wild animal and bend it to your will, you won’t learn much here. If you want to dominate an animal, take the easy way out and work with a dog or other domestic animal. An exotic cat, or any wild animal for that matter, is never going to be tame or domestic. It will always be wild. It won’t bend to your will without great resentment, and that resentment will cause the animal to look for a payback as it gets older.

How you approach any interaction with an exotic cat, and what that cat perceives your intentions to be, will directly dictate how close a bond you may ultimately develop. I have worked with a large number of cats throughout my life, and I am still amazed at how accurately and quickly they determine a human’s motivation for being in their presence.

My attitude is that it is an honor and a sacred trust to have a wild animal’s confidence and respect, and I owe that animal my best effort to justify that trust and return it with equal respect and concern for its feelings and desires. If you truly have this attitude, you will have a great start.

General Traits

An exotic cat is an evolutionary marvel of reactions and instincts, together with a strong will. They are affected by any source of stimulation by a large multiple compared to that we would experience. The degree of their reactions to any stimulus is also much greater than the response we would consider appropriate by our standards. These factors are crucial to understanding what must be known in order to safely be in contact with these beings on a regular basis.     

If a cat considers you a source of agitation at a time when it is already excited, nervous, or already agitated, it may well attack or strike out at you. There are times when any cat, no matter how much it likes you, will impulsively strike at you if you do the wrong thing at the wrong time. They don’t turn, as conventional thinking dictates, but they will strike at a perceived source of irritation or agitation when in a certain state of mind. Perhaps one hour later, you could have done exactly the same thing that caused the strike with complete safety. Your safety lies in rehearsing positive encounters and mutually satisfactory interactions and avoiding or minimizing any negative or irritating encounters. 

It is extremely important that you be totally tuned to a cat when you are in a compound with it. Your safety and the quality of your relationship depends on you accurately reading the cat’s eyes, how it walks, the speed of its movements, its sounds, the movements of its tail, the position of its head, how it approaches you, and how the cat responds to your presence at that moment. Remember, these cats have all the emotions we have, but they don’t have any inhibitions. What they feel like doing is what they’ll do. 


The most important element that can not be taught is your degree of comfort in the presence of a large, potentially lethal animal. If you can’t be almost totally at ease, the cat won’t be at ease either. This uneasiness causes agitation, which can lead to a strike. Remember, if the cat perceives you as a source of agitation it might strike. If you aren’t capable of being relaxed and at ease with exotic cats, perhaps you should find another avocation or vocation.  

One of the most common mistakes made by humans interacting with exotic cats is to impose themselves on the cat. Always let the cat become comfortable with your presence, and let the cat dictate how much tactile interaction it wants to have at that moment or that day. I work with cats that might signal they don’t want me anywhere around them at a certain point in time, and I respect that feeling and leave. Many times, several hours later, I am lying with that cat with its head in my lap. Doing the wrong thing at the wrong time is a recipe for disaster. Many  adult cats like a few minutes of affectionate rubbing and scratching, then they want you to just stand close and talk to them for as long as you like, not touching them. If you don’t push yourself on them, you’ll have a much better and more relaxed relationship. Their comfort level with you is incremental, with them becoming more comfortable the longer you are in their compound and a source of comfort and support, rather than an agitating factor. 

One thing I never do is use any part of my body as a tool for discipline or correction. Aside from moral considerations, it is asking a lot to strike a cat with your hand, then expect it to enjoy and want to be rubbed or touched by the same hand. I find that, if a cat really enjoys and wants your company, it will do many things just to keep you in its presence. I generally find that a stern “NO” being shouted when a cat is using its mouth, using its claws, or jumping on me, is sufficient to deter it and get it to cease its undesirable conduct. I always carry a spray bottle of vinegar with me. I find that vinegar is helpful to accentuate the “NO” by stimulating the senses of smell and sight as well as hearing the word “NO.” I generally don’t even spray the vinegar on the cat when I use it, only spraying it in a stream in front or within sight of the cat. Understand that vinegar is not a weapon, and it will not deter an angry  cat from attacking. If a cat continues with conduct I find unacceptable, I just leave and come back another time. It soon learns that certain conduct will cause me to leave.

Things to know and to watch

One thing everyone should know, especially those contemplating acquiring an exotic cat, is that certain cats are not safe for human interaction after they become adults. This is true, even if they are raised with every possible positive and knowledgeable step being taken. It’s just like humans—some individuals are antisocial. There is no reliable way to predict that future with a cub of several months. Therefore, someone acquiring a cat could possibly learn all the right methods, have the appropriate attitude, and still end up with heartbreak, and a cat that they can’t handle when it grows up. It happens.

Also, I have seen a number of web pages where someone endeavors to relate the personality of a particular species and its characteristics. What I have found, working with a comparatively large number of tigers, lions, cougars, and leopards, is that the differences between individuals within a species has more bearing on the cat’s personality than characteristics peculiar to a specific species. 

It is important to learn what stimulus agitates a particular cat. Unlike what I have seen some people state, there is no generality about sources of irritation. For some cats, particularly tigers, a drop in barometric pressure will create agitation. Shouting makes many cats agitated, as does sudden movement, people running, unfamiliar machinery, umbrellas, hats, and laughter. These factors don’t affect every cat, but these are some of the conditions that I find frequently affect many cats. 

Be aware that, when a cat is agitated, it takes little on your part to make that cat perceive you as a source of agitation and react violently. If you are present at these times, you better have great confidence that you and that cat understand each other completely, or you are in danger. 

Do not make yourself the source of any games with a cub. Divert the cub’s attention to toys, balls, and other objects. You must remember that what you rehearse doing with that cub is going to be what that adult cat will consider appropriate. You will not like the games it will play with you, if it considers you a source of play. It’s cute to have a tiger cub come crashing into your legs when it’s 75 pounds, but it’s not cute when that same tiger becomes 400-500 pounds. Be consistent. They will only be completely comfortable with you if they feel they can rely on your actions and responses.

In Conclusion

The exotic cats are fascinating, capable of great affection, possessing great dignity, and one of the most worthy of Earth’s beings. The arduous task necessary to begin to understand the complications of its personality is a worthwhile journey for those committed individuals that want to make this journey a large part of their life, and who will derive great happiness and satisfaction from achieving some success in that regard. Anyone not fitting that description might be well advised to seek a more simple and safe way to fulfill their life. The long list of people harmed seriously by exotic cats serves testimony to the fact that these animals don’t suffer ignorance or insensitivity with great patience.

Emotional Enrichment


At the International Exotic Feline Sanctuary, we have been practicing various methods of enriching the lives of our resident felines for a number of years. Some of the methods we utilize are conventional and are used more and more by responsible and progressive institutions in the animal care field. Others are rather unique to our facility. We have been searching for a manner of distinguishing these various techniques. We have determined that the methods should be classed under two distinct categories.

Behavioral Enrichment

The most common enrichment category currently utilized is Behavioral Enrichment. This method of enrichment is defined by the AZA Behavioral Advisory Group as: “Environmental enrichment is a process for improving or enhancing zoo animal environments and care within the context of their inhabitant’s behavioral biology and natural history. It is a dynamic process in which changes to structures and husbandry practices are made with the goal of increasing the behavioral choice available to animals and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors and abilities, thus enhancing their welfare. As the term implies, enrichment typically involves the identification and subsequent addition to the zoo environment of a specific stimulus or characteristic that the occupant(s) needs but which was not previously present.”

In other words, behavioral enrichment primarily is concerned with physical objects and structures that seem to make life a bit more interesting for the species. We practice this method in many ways. We build very large habitats with shade and terrain changes. We build ramps and high perches for the climbing cats such as cougars, leopards, bobcats, lynx, and jaguars. We build perches for the lions. We build perches and pools with running water for the tigers and jaguars, as well as other cats. We give large and small balls to the cats. We give boat buoys and large plastic “pickles” to the larger cats. We give the cats pumpkins to play with in the fall. We give cats ice blocks embedded with food objects to play with in the summer.

Emotional Enrichment

However, we also feel that exotic felines, as well as other wild animals, benefit substantially from having an emotional state of well-being. We give a great deal of attention to this subject. We call it Emotional Enrichment.

Emotional enrichment is practiced in a variety of ways. One of the frequent mistakes that is made is to categorize a species in general terms vis-à-vis its personality and emotional characteristics. Animals are as individual as humans. Sure, there are some generalizations that can be made about a specific species, but there are many more distinctions from one individual to another within that species. So, we work with each individual according to its personality and emotional needs. In general, we have our staff and volunteers treat each cat with the respect and dignity that would be accorded another human. Care is taken not to agitate, irritate, or unduly excite any cat. No demands are placed upon it, other than the necessary movement into and out of its separated area to be locked down for feeding and cleaning of the habitat. Volunteers and staff sit outside the habitats of various cats and give them companionship and company. When the keepers are working in the cat’s area, they take the time to softly talk to the cat and reassure the cat before moving on, thereby having protected interaction that is beneficial to the cat without risk to the keeper. Tours are conducted in such a manner that they do not excite or upset the routine of the cats. Cats are never required or asked to approach or change their position for the benefit of a tour or individual. Respect is the guideword, and all cats are to be treated with respect at all times.

We never use words such as “order” or “command.” We choose words such as “condition” and “positive reinforcement.” In other words, in every way possible we try to make the cats’ experience with humans one of security, comfort, and support, giving them the understanding that their feelings are being considered in all activities. Our experience is that the cats respond very positively to this conditioning.

Most of the cats in our facility were either intentionally or unintentionally mistreated or abused. They come to us with an antagonistic attitude towards humans. We have found that the great majority of them have changed that attitude as they have come to appreciate our feelings and conduct towards them. Their lives have definitely been improved in obvious behavioral changes that have taken place. Their stress level is minimized. You will rarely, if ever, see a cat at our facility pace, bare its fangs, or charge the fence towards any human. You will almost never see any defensive actions towards humans.

I physically interact with a large number of our large cats. Some of them have never before had direct contact with a human. Most of the cats that have had direct contact previously considered it adversarial, as training methods of domination/ control were apparently utilized. I find that most of our cats respond surprisingly well to my method of utilizing only affection, trust, and respect in direct interaction. I simply sit and become a companion to many of the larger cats, and they often fall asleep with me standing next to them softly talking to them and giving them reassurance and security. They obviously enjoy and want positive emotional interaction. Even the most solitary of cats in nature, such as leopards, cougars, and tigers are among the most affectionate of our cats with me. This again varies from individual to individual. Some simply want me to stand and talk to them. Others want me to sit beside them or in close proximity. In some cases, an individual cat would rather I play with it utilizing some of their objects such as rolling a ball back and forth, holding one of their enrichment items or tossing it for them, or simply holding a dry twig for it to take in its mouth and break pieces off bit by bit (this is a favorite game for most of the cats, actually).

The point is that we find that emotional enrichment not only heightens the behavioral enrichment and acts as an important adjunct to it, but the two activities in concert substantially improve the emotional and physical lives of the individuals involved. Enrichment items that would otherwise not be given much attention are used much more when they are a source of play and interaction with a human, and the cats seem to derive much more pleasure from the activity. Also, our experience is that the whole attitude of our cats is much more positive and peaceful as a result of our emotional enrichment program.

In Conclusion

This program does not necessitate unprotected contact interaction to be a successful program. Many of the elements of our program could be utilized and improve an animal’s life without the need for direct human contact. Indeed, we have several cats that derive a great deal of benefit from our program without having any direct interaction. Again, it is all an individual determination on our part. I don’t interact with an individual unless I feel it would substantially benefit that individual’s quality of life, and that I can safely interact without danger to the animal or myself. We feel that emotional enrichment would be a vital and helpful addition to any behavioral enrichment program and would substantially benefit the lives of the affected animals.

Interaction with Wild Animals: GOOD or BAD?

white tigers

First, I must point out that the interaction referred to throughout this article can apply to protected contact or unprotected contact. I realize that most work with any potentially dangerous animals at a zoo would utilize protected contact in today’s environment, but the truths and principles articulated in this article applies to either approach.


Among the most controversial of questions in the animal care world is the question of whether it is progressive and helpful to have a human/animal interaction with wild animals, or just a bad idea. This article will give the author’s viewpoint on this question with the caveat that I do not feel I have a monopoly on “truth,” and I am very suspicious of anyone that seems to feel he/she does.  

I believe it must first be understood that this question falls into the same category as questions such as “is it good or bad to have a gun for protection,” or “is religion a good or bad thing for society.” These questions share a common thread: it depends on how they are used. Certainly we humans have a profound ability to corrupt good ideas and goals and turn them into a negative result, if the motivation and intentions of the particular person or group is self-centered and/or driven by desires not beneficial to society or, in this case, the animals affected.

The first question to be asked is “Why?” What is the purpose of any proposed interaction or desire to develop a relationship with a wild animal? Here are a number of constructive reasons for interaction, which I will address individually: for the emotional well being of the particular animal, for health and medication purposes, for safety of both the animals and the caretakers, and for public education and conservation. 

Emotional Benefits

We humans know that our health and general well being is dependent on a number of factors including proper nutrition, proper medication, exercise, and a positive emotional attitude and outlook. Why, then, do we generally only address an animal’s nutrition, medication, and habitat? Do we not feel that they would benefit tremendously from a positive mental and emotional outlook? It can be argued that many wild animals have a more highly developed emotional range than humans do and therefore need more attention addressed to this element. I personally have found that there is more difference in personality and characteristics between individuals within a species of big cat than there is between differences among species. We have 68 big cats at the International Exotic Feline Sanctuary, including 21 tigers, 14 lions, and 7 leopards. I therefore have had a chance to work with many individuals within a species. They have the same ranges in personality and temperament as do humans. For example, we have two female Amur leopards that were raised together, live together, and had almost exactly the same environment while growing up, yet they are as different as any two human sisters might be. I spend a great deal of time with them, and their personality differences are more noticeable than are their similarities. 

I find that all wild animals with which I’ve worked benefit from having a human to whom they can look for security, trust, and comfort. They are placed in an unnatural setting in captivity, and since they of necessity have to have humans around them, they are much more comfortable and relaxed if they view humans positively.  As we all know, all the large big cats are solitary in nature, with the exception of lions, Yet, my experience is that all species of big cats generally crave and desire positive human attention as much as any other being. In fact, for some reason I find that cougars and leopards—probably the most solitary of cats in nature—are perhaps the most affectionate of cats with a human they trust. We find that our cats benefit in reduced stress level, comfort around volunteers and employees, and even comfort around tour groups, once they develop a positive one-on-one relationship with a human. 

Now, that phrase “positive one-on-one relationship” is critically important. I work with all wild animals using no discipline and no reward. Only affection, trust, and respect. If the purpose in having interaction is to benefit the animal, it must be a completely positive experience for the animal; otherwise there is no purpose under this category of reasons for interaction. That means one must start with the proper experience, knowledge, and motivation. Without all of these qualities it is a recipe for failure, or worse—injury.  One must know which individual would probably benefit. Since wild animals do all have unique emotional characteristics just like us, some individual wild animals can’t be trusted by even the most experienced human and perhaps don’t want human contact. Next, the human must know what activities and interaction will produce positive emotional benefits, and the human must be motivated only for the benefit of the animal involved. If one has any other purpose for the interaction such as ego gratification, desire to dominate, or to show off to others, the animal will probably not respect or trust the human, and it will not be a positive activity for either party. In fact, someone with improper motivation will most likely end up seriously injured, and the animal will also suffer as a result. It must also be emphasized that positive interaction does not have to take place in unprotected contact with a wild animal; many of the benefits of emotional bonding and trust can be achieved from protected contact through a fence.

Health and Medication

If a wild animal looks to an individual or individuals for security, trust, and comfort, quite often minor medical procedures can be accomplished without stress and/or sedation. I have given tigers and other large cats shots for days, taken urine samples, removed objects jammed in their teeth, removed obstructions around the animals, and checked paws, etc. for potential problems. I have heard of others doing artificial insemination without sedation. We don’t do any breeding, so that has not been relevant for our sanctuary. We have made a number of moves from habitat to habitat without stress, sedation, or obvious discomfort. I have even led cats from one habitat to another, although I don’t advise this method unless the behaviorist is extremely knowledgeable, knows the cat to be moved very well, and the environment in the entire area can be completely controlled. 

Safety Issues

There is great benefit to having someone present at any facility that has a positive relationship with each individual animal, from a safety standpoint. My observation is that most escape plans with which I’m familiar, even at large institutions such as zoos, do not take sufficient notice of the benefit of calming an animal down and getting it more comfortable with his or her surroundings before attempting to either sedate the animal or confine it in some manner. Failure to do so frequently has resulted in injury to animals, humans, or both. With few exceptions, the presence of someone with whom the animal feels comfortable and trusts can minimize potential for harm to either animals or humans. A caregiver that animals look to as a source of security and support can often lead escaped animals back to their enclosure, since they are frightened once they escape and seek a source of comfort. Escape plans that don’t take into account the fact that stress and agitation will cause aggressive/defensive reactions that are potentially harmful to all present are fundamentally flawed. Conditioning a dangerous animal to accept humans as caregivers, rather than a source of irritation, stress, or agitation can be the difference between life and death. I know of at least two separate instances regarding big cats where the prior conditioning of different tigers resulted in no injury to keepers that came in contact with the cat through the keepers’ mistakes. I was responsible for the conditioning of one of the tigers. A very experienced friend of mine conditioned the other tiger.

Public Education and Conservation

This section will undoubtedly be controversial, for my experience is that not one person working with wild animals will agree with everything I say here. Also, I very much doubt that anyone working with wild animals would agree with everything anyone else said on this subject. There is a bit more unanimity among animal rights advocates that don’t work with wild animals, as they tend to group wild animals as a cohesive unit and decide what they think is right for all wild animals generally. On the other hand, I and many others that have close relationships with wild animals realize that they are as individual as are humans. For instance, the statement often heard that all wild animals would be better off in the wild than in the best conditions of captivity is too confining. Just as all humans don’t want to live in the wilds of Montana—or live in the confinement of an apartment in New York City—so too do wild animals differ in what makes them happy, based on their individual personalities.

It has been illustrated time and again that we humans only care about preserving those animal species with which we identify in a positive and caring manner. Examples such as dolphins, killer whales, panda bears, koalas, and wolves illustrate the value of human caring. And, even some of those species are having difficulty surviving because of habitat destruction, poaching, commercial activities, and conflict with agricultural and development interests.

I have a pragmatic understanding that appropriate venues are necessary to enable the public to identify with individuals of a species—particularly carnivores and large wild animals such as bears—in order for the public to take an interest in their treatment and survival. If we didn’t become attached to “Flipper” many years ago, where would dolphins be today? And, if we didn’t become attached to “Shamu” and his many incarnations, what would the fate of killer whales be? 

Many wrongs have been committed in the attempt to use animals for entertainment, including past inappropriate activities such as: dressing primates in foolish human clothing and having them do undignified and demeaning activities, having exotic cat shows where the cats and the trainer have an adversarial relationship and the cat is expected to do “tricks” such as leaping through a hoop of fire or balance on a platform while the trainer brandishes a whip or other device, or elephant shows wherein the elephant is trained and controlled with a “bull hook” and required to do inappropriate and unnatural tricks such as sitting on  a pedestal or standing on one leg.

Add to those obvious infractions the following inappropriate, and stressful activities such as: photo shoots with the public in close proximity or holding wild animals, taking wild animals on television shows where they are ridiculed or used only as props for jokes, walking large carnivores on a leash in proximity to the public, and allowing the public to fondle and pet wild animals that are confined—and there is plenty of ammunition for those animal rights activists that want to ban all venues using wild animals. They characterize all these activities as exploitation and inappropriate use of a wild animal. Many of them are. These activities send the wrong message to the public and perpetuate the treatment of animals as objects to be utilized in any manner we choose for entertainment. The appropriate venues that do treat wild animals with respect and utilize natural behavior are cast in the same light, because the majority of uses are the inappropriate ones. Therefore, the opportunity to educate the public about treating wild animals with the respect and dignity to which they are entitled, while getting the public to identify with them is being questioned, and we have “opportunities lost.”

 The zoological community in the past has been among the perpetrators of the above stated inappropriate activities, and some zoological community members are still perpetrating some of the abuses. The solution by a large number of the zoological community members that realize the mistake has been to decree that they will no longer utilize wild animals in any venue involving human interaction, and therefore the animals will then be treated more as exhibits, not sentient beings. This choice would result in further distancing the public from identification with wild animals and vastly inhibit the ability to marshall sentiment for conservation and protection methods that will be crucial to the survival of most of the larger species of wild animals.

I would submit that there are appropriate and proper venues that involve wild animals in a manner that is educational to the public, help the public identify with a particular species of wild animal, and is enjoyable or at least not stressful for the animals involved.

First, the organization developing the interaction must carefully select individuals within a species that are temperamentally suited to activities involving masses of people. Each animal is an individual, and some wild animals like solitude. while others can enjoy interaction in front of a crowd if they are treated with respect and concern for their welfare and comfort. 

Next, any interaction should be designed to display the particular species of animal in a venue that allows it to use its natural behavior in a manner that the public enjoys but is also pleasurable for the animal. As far as exotic cats, this would involve a natural setting wherein the cat would chase lures or other objects, perhaps climb trees, and leap from object to object. Properly done with the right cats, this activity can be fun for the cats, if they are treated with the proper respect and concern for their comfort and welfare. In addition, it would educate the public about their playful and sometimes affectionate nature, while at the same time showing that any use of a wild animal should involve activities that the animal finds enjoyable as much as the public. For primates, an appropriate activity could be having a grouping of ropes and swings in an area and having the trainers swinging and engaging in natural primate activities with the primates that would be fun for the primates as well as the public. 

In my opinion, if wild animals are to be used in television shows, there should be conditions present that minimize the stress to the animal while insuring its safety and security. Only animals that have proven to be comfortable around groups of people should be used, and the particular television show should show appropriate respect and consideration for the animals and not ridicule their behavior or nature. Also, there should always be a message about the need to respect and to preserve our natural world. Otherwise there is no educational value, rather the message given is that it is okay to exploit and utilize animals in any manner we choose for our entertainment. Rather, all public uses of wild animals should emphasize that it is wrong and improper to enjoy seeing an animal in stress or discomfort in any manner. Nor should an enlightened public get pleasure out of seeing an animal made to engage in unnatural behavior.

In Conclusion

In summation, well-planned and well-executed interaction between human and animal can be a constructive and positive activity for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is that hopefully future generations will grow to accept that all higher beings on this planet are entitled to some rights and concerns for their emotional needs and rights. Half a century ago humans were guilty of classing other humans in a subordinate classification and treating them as something to be separated and treated differently. Our state of enlightenment in the 21st Century can hardly realize how that activity came to be and was accepted for so long. Perhaps better understanding and knowledge of wild animals—particularly wild predators—will allow humans to recognize that the animals’ emotional makeup is more similar than different from ours, and the gap we now think exists between us is more a result of lack of verbal communication than it is substantial differences. Only dedicated individuals embarking on a lifelong journey to learn about the animals on their terms and with respect for their instincts and needs can bring that recognition about. Necessarily, it will take interaction and understanding to achieve those results. Mistakes will be made. People will be injured. Has any achievement—including the struggle to establish equal treatment of all humans—taken place without those very same sacrifices?

Why Exotic Cats Don’t Make Pets

white tiger

In summation, well-planned and well-executed interaction between human and animal can be a constructive and positive activity for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is that hopefully future generations will grow to accept that all higher beings on this planet are entitled to some rights and concerns for their emotional needs and rights. Half a century ago humans were guilty of classing other humans in a subordinate classification and treating them as something to be separated and treated differently. Our state of enlightenment in the 21st Century can hardly realize how that activity came to be and was accepted for so long. Perhaps better understanding and knowledge of wild animals—particularly wild predators—will allow humans to recognize that the animals’ emotional makeup is more similar than different from ours, and the gap we now think exists between us is more a result of lack of verbal communication than it is substantial differences. Only dedicated individuals embarking on a lifelong journey to learn about the animals on their terms and with respect for their instincts and needs can bring that recognition about. Necessarily, it will take interaction and understanding to achieve those results. Mistakes will be made. People will be injured. Has any achievement—including the struggle to establish equal treatment of all humans—taken place without those very same sacrifices?

Definition of a Pet

First, let’s define pet. Different people have different versions of what a pet means to them. So, let’s go to the dictionary. “Pet” is defined as “an animal that is domesticated and kept as a companion.”  (Emphasis added.) Now, let’s define “domesticated.” It is defined as “to tame for human use.” A domesticated animal has gone through 10,000 years of selective breeding to breed into them inhibition—which an exotic cat doesn’t possess—and to minimize their wild instincts. Even with that selective breeding, the wild instincts are present. For example, packs of stray dogs in rural areas that aren’t controlled by humans are more vicious and aggressive than a pack of wolves. Okay, with that out of the way, let’s see how it applies to exotic cats. 

Exotic Cat – An evolutionary marvel

An exotic cat is an evolutionary marvel of reactions and instincts, together with a strong will. They can never be tamed in the sense we normally associate with that word. They are strongly affected by any source of stimulation, and it affects their mood and reactions. The degree of their reactions to any stimulus is also much greater than the response we would consider appropriate by our standards. These factors are crucial to understanding what must be known in order to safely be in contact with these beings on a regular basis. If one attempts to control the cat’s actions, and the cat considers you a source of agitation at a time when it is already excited, nervous, or already agitated, the cat may well attack or strike out at you. The fact that you raised it will not matter. Sound like it can be domesticated?

There are times when any cat, no matter how much it likes you, will impulsively strike at you if you do the wrong thing at the wrong time. They have no inhibition; what they feel at the moment is what they will do. They don’t turn, as conventional thinking dictates, but they will strike at a perceived source of irritation or agitation when in a certain state of mind. Perhaps one hour later, one could have done exactly the same thing that caused the strike with complete safety. One’s safety lies in rehearsing positive encounters and mutually satisfactory interactions and avoiding or minimizing any negative or irritating encounters. Now, that is often not enough. For instance, when a female comes in heat, it may become vicious towards any human (including you), even if it is normally the most docile of exotic cats. I have personally seen this happen. Sound like the kind of companion you want?

Now, what must one do if they hope to have any sort of relationship with an exotic cat? For one thing, it extremely important that one is totally tuned to a cat when they are in proximity to the cat. One’s safety and the quality of one’s relationship depends on one accurately reading the cat’s eyes, how it walks, the speed of its movements, its sounds, the movements of its tail, the position of its head, how it approaches them, and how the cat responds to one’s presence at that moment. Remember that these cats have all the emotions we have, but they don’t have any inhibitions. What they feel like doing is what they’ll do. If one misreads any element of their subtle signals as enumerated (plus many more too subtle to be easily stated), the cat will ultimately not be comfortable and will not want contact with you. Sound like your definition of a pet? Or a companion?

Also, be aware that children are always in peril, as the instincts of an exotic cat are always to lock on and stalk the smaller of any species. And with the added element of jerky and sudden movements often associated with children, any contact between the two is a recipe for disaster, as many recent anecdotes attest. There have been several children killed by exotic cats recently here in Texas alone.

But, one might say with some accuracy, haven’t I seen many cases of very affectionate interaction between trainers or behaviorists and exotic cats, including on the web site of International Exotic Animal Sanctuary? The answer is “yes,” with a great many caveats. First, the affectionate and loving interaction witnessed is not easily attained. It is the result of a long period of positive interaction between a trained and quite knowledgeable professional, with many days of positive reinforcement. One can do things right for 100 days, and if one then creates tension or agitation for only a couple of days in a row the bond might well be seriously breached. There is absolutely no margin for safety; one must accurately read and respond correctly 100% of the time. Also, the author of this article has met and known most of the contemporary recognized experts and even individuals considered legends in handling exotic cats. They all bear a number of scars (including the author) attesting to the fact that experience does not come without consequences. Is this what one would expect or want from a pet?

In reality, the exotic cats bear no relationship to what is commonly called a pet. I would define a pet as an animal that can be taught to reasonably adapt itself to the domestic life of a human and be safely considered part of the human’s household and environment. In the very best of circumstances, the relationship with an exotic cat can be similar to that one might have with a good friend, where many compromises are made and both parties have to adapt to each other’s habits and personalities. However, unlike the relationship one might have with a good friend, there is always the potential for the cat to strike out and harm even a human with whom it has a very affectionate and close bond. One of the most common mistakes made by humans interacting with exotic cats is to impose themselves on the cat. One must always let the cat become comfortable with one’s presence and let the cat dictate how much tactile interaction it wants to have at that moment or that day. Is that normally the concept one would entertain about how they would want to cohabit with what they would call a pet? For the great majority of people, I would think the answer would be “NO!”

Now, to the more mundane—but vitally important—areas of housing and feeding. We at the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary feel that big exotic cats, such as lions and tigers, should have a minimum of 4,500 square feet of living space to give them the quality of life to which they are entitled. Tigers and jaguars also require a pool for swimming and cooling. We find that building an appropriate habitat for such a cat costs around $30,000. This is actual cost. We have our own welder on staff and employees to do the work, so this doesn’t include any contractor’s fee or other expenses. In addition, a cat this size eats around 11 pounds of meat a day, which also must be supplemented with a variety of vitamins and minerals to give them the balanced diet required for their system.

So, while looking at that cute little cub one might see on a television show or at a zoo, before thinking, “Gee, I’d like to own something like that,” think long and hard. They stay a cub for a very short time. Then, all the problems enumerated above—plus a large number I didn’t complicate this article with—come into play. If one really has a deep and abiding interest in learning about big cats and developing a relationship with one, my suggestion is to volunteer at a facility like ours. I sincerely believe one will find it much more satisfying to be a part of something that directly improves the lives of worthy exotic cats, rather than creating another problem that has to be solved by some sanctuary. Our volunteers are dedicated and committed, and they know they have a vital part in the improvement of our resident cats’ quality of life. Many of them have been assisting us for many years. They feel fulfilled, and the cats’ lives are better for their presence. 

Positive Reinforcement

tiger chewing on stick

The term positive reinforcement has been widely used in recent years when discussing training or interaction with animals, both wild and domestic. Generally, when one hears the term one thinks of training sessions in which the methodology utilized is a reward of some type for a positive response rather than discipline or punishment for mistakes or inattention.

However, I would submit that really effective and appropriate positive reinforcement involves the total interaction between animal and human at all times in which they are in sight or contact with each other. An animal–particularly a wild animal–is constantly evaluating its attitude towards a specific human and humans in general, as their instincts do not have any programming to take humans into account. The only instinct that applies is the instinct to distrust and be wary of anything or anyone that isn’t part of their family.

The more one predisposes any animal, including a domestic animal, to presume that the human with whom it is dealing is going to be a source of security, support, and comfort, the easier the task of convincing the animal that whatever action one is attempting to get it to complete will be a fun and enjoyable activity.

I put this concept into practice with an 18-month-old German shepherd I rescued that had been found wandering the streets of Dallas eating out of garbage bags and fending for herself. She had been completely independent and had developed an attitude that humans had always been a source of disappointment and disillusionment. She was not housebroken or trained in any manner. Rather than taking the attitude that I must immediately train her to socialize her, I waited a few weeks until I could sense that she had determined I might actually be someone she could trust and that she should give me the benefit of the doubt. When I first got her, the defiance and resentment to any attempt to modify her behavior in any way was quite obvious. Therefore I waited until I saw a desire on her part to please me, then I started showing her things that would make our relationship better. She enthusiastically attempted to understand what I wanted and to perform accordingly, receiving a great deal of praise and affection for her cooperation. I didn’t use any treat rewards; only praise and affection. I was pleasantly surprised to find that she was perhaps the easiest dog to train with whom I have worked. I have no doubt that, had I attempted to modify her behavior two weeks previously, we would have never achieved the relationship we began to enjoy in a very short time.

Positive reinforcement should be a continuing process, not an event. By that I mean that the best results will be obtained if the animal is constantly reassured that all its human contacts are considerate and thoughtful about its well-being and welfare. This is particularly true with wild animals. I find that humans are always being “auditioned” by wild animals, which have a deeply embedded wariness about human contact. They analyze and process every encounter to determine how they should feel about that particular human and humans in general. Therefore, all keepers and other employees that have any contact or are in close proximity to a particular wild animal at any time should be taught the best way to conduct their necessary work in a manner that is most reassuring and least stressful to the animal. Then, any operant conditioning or other training can be conducted in an environment that has been preconditioned to be positive between the animal and the behaviorist/trainer. I know that some facilities, such as SeaWorld, require their veterinarians to have social interaction with the whales, dolphins, and other animals when they aren’t in need of veterinary care, so that their presence doesn’t just signal a stressful event. This procedure makes their work significantly more positive for both the veterinarian and the animal.

In working with the exotic cats that I am rehabilitating from previous mistreatment by humans, I have been amazed at their desire to modify their behavior to please me, once they determine that I am a source of comfort, security, and support. In some–but not all–cases, they also look to me as a source of affection. But even the ones that don’t want affectionate contact enjoy my presence to the extent that they will modify their behavior in order to keep me in their presence. Perhaps we will play with their balls, or I’ll just sit beside them as they lie on their perch. In all cases, however, the constant preconditioning and repetitive display of respect I convey to them is my source of safety. They come to look upon me as a welcome and pleasant interlude in their day. My entrance to their habitat is not a significant event, as they over time come to look upon my presence as a natural part of their environment. Frequently the cat will not even get up, and I may sit or lie beside it. Generally, I can feel the animal relax and often it will go to sleep. I use no rewards except praise, respect, and affection.

This conditioning can make veterinary procedures or any other desired activity much easier and less stressful. In addition, there is a markedly increased safety factor, for if the animal does get out of its habitat, it does not go into an automatic defensive or aggressive mode towards humans. And, if a keeper accidentally enters a habitat when the animal is not secured, there is much less likelihood of a serious injury occurring.

One must understand, however, that just like humans, there are anti-social animals. If such an animal is encountered, all the positive reinforcement and appropriate methodology will not produce the results desired. However, positive reinforcement processes still will improve the relationship to some extent between caregiver and animal. I think it is important to understand that these animals exist, for otherwise time and energy can be wasted on them that would be better spent on the more receptive animals that could benefit to a greater extent. Perhaps, over time, those anti-social animals can be rehabilitated. It can be a long process, however. I recently rehabilitated a jaguar that was extremely aggressive and disliked having any human in close proximity, even outside its enclosure. It took me a number of years to develop that trust. Now, although I enter the jaguar’s habitat, she still does not prefer physical contact; rather she likes to lie about 10-20 feet from me and just have me stand there and talk to her. It has affected her relationship with other humans and caregivers in a very positive way. She will approach and lie close by employees and volunteers who sit outside her fence now, so her quality of life is much improved and less stressful.

Probably the most dangerous and potentially aggressive exotic cat of the 66 cats at the International Exotic Feline Sanctuary, where I used to rehabilitate cats that have previously been abused or otherwise mistreated, was a six-year-old Siberian tiger named Caesar. During the period when he was just becoming an adult–from 18 to 36 months–he tested me to see if I deserved his respect on almost a daily basis. If I hadn’t known him so well, I would have been sure he was going to attack me at any moment, as he would act out the posture and attitude that usually precedes an attack. However, once he saw that I understood him and was not intimidated, he would “chuff” and rub up against me then lie on his perch where I would sit beside him while he went to sleep. After years of this positive reinforcement, Caesar is now one of the most trustworthy and stable cats with which I work. He never showed any aggression towards me and is even becoming increasingly affectionate–something he did not exhibit with any regularity until the later years.

I believe that the best way to create an environment at any facility, where positive reinforcement is a consistent and ongoing process between all human employees, volunteers, and the resident animals, is to emphasize the satisfaction and benefits one will derive from knowing they have had a part to play in improving the quality of life of the resident animals. My approach is to treat all animals with the respect and consideration with which I would treat any other deserving humans. I am constantly amazed at the degree to which even wild predators will respond to such respect and return it with consideration and gentleness towards me. So, the process can work on even very aggressive predators, but it must be conducted with consistency, patience, and respect for the animal.

The Truth About Animal Emotions


It is time, as our collective philosophies and cultures mature, to once and forever acknowledge what all individuals in the animal-related fields who work with animals know without doubt. Not only the professional keepers at zoos and institutions, but individuals that love and cherish their individual domestic animals know equally well. What is this vague and illusive truth? 


Aren’t we all a bit weary and tired of having even the hint of a serious debate on a subject that really is as evident to anyone—professional or layman—that spends any degree of time really getting to know an animal, that to deny animals’ complex range of feelings and emotions should have gone by the wayside at the same time we realized the Earth is not flat?

The view of animals as non-feeling creatures of reflex was made popular by Descartes’ philosophy of science in the 1600’s. Four hundred years ago! Not too long after the concept of a flat Earth was debunked. Yet, with the tremendous strides that have been made in understanding of feelings and emotions, Descartes’ approach is still followed by a surprising group of well-educated scientists and institutions. 

Why does this foolish myth continue to be seriously debated? A cynical person might recognize that there are many industries that rely upon animals for such commercial activities as animal testing and medical research that would face great moral outrage and a conscientious dilemma if they allowed themselves to recognize the emotional comparisons to the human species. Yet, they continue to experiment with animals such as social primates who have over 98% of the same DNA as do humans. Of course, DNA and genealogical comparisons were not even understood when this sort of research was initially condoned.

There are also a large number of individuals who were raised with a tradition of hunting for pleasure and who continue to practice this form of “recreation” who would really have to examine their souls and character if they were to recognize that the sources of their “recreation” were sentient beings with strong emotions, love of family, and able to feel the same degree of fear and pain as do the perpetrators of this “sport.” Yet the same people frequently go home and relate anecdotes about their dog/s’ and/or cats’ individual emotional traits in the same vein as a human friends’ identical traits. We all know people that fall into that category. 

Another factor that contributes to the concealment and attempt to deny what all common sense and objective observation by caring individuals know to be true is the fact that uniquely, most all animal-related institutions are managed and run by scientists. What other field, other than medical research, is run and managed by scientists? Science has a vital function in our society, but how many people would choose a scientist to make a determination about the emotional well-being—or the existence of any emotional trait—in themselves or any of one’s loved ones?

We quite properly are very careful in selecting someone with impeccable psychiatric/psychological education, training, and experience for any opinions that we would take any action upon, whose opinions we would give credence, or accept as any authoritative viewpoint on the subject of the emotional makeup of anyone close to us, or of our own emotional characteristics. 

Yet, in a charade synonymous with the old fable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” we accept as fact so many concepts about “generic” animals’ feelings and emotions that we would never accept for any animals we have raised and know well. Just like the fable, everyone accepts what has been articulated by authoritative figures with the “cloak of authority,” just like the citizens in the fable accepted that their naked Emperor in fact had on lovely, stylish garb because they were told that by people that had similar “cloaks of authority.”

These scientists, who learned their field of expertise by experimenting with animals for the “good of knowledge and science” now dictate to a gullible public the concepts their culture must perpetuate in order to justify its methods and practices.

Also, scientists want proof to a scientific certainty about any subject they address. Think about it: how would you prove that you were happy? That you were depressed? That you needed to be alone one day? Is there any way you could prove—or expect others to prove—to a scientific certainty about any emotions you or they had?

I am reminded of a farce carried out for a national television audience not too many years ago. Before a Congressional Committee, all the chief executives of all the major tobacco companies—in sworn testimony—spoke one after another stating with a straight face that there was no scientific proof that tobacco caused addiction. At the same time, scientists with lots of initials behind their name made the talk show circuit articulating the same message. And, even though these positions flew in the face of what all intelligent citizens knew to be the real truth, there was a somewhat serious discussion and controversy at the time about the subject! The analogy is unmistakable. 

At this point, I must state that my experience is that most keepers at zoos and other facilities—even circuses—that house animals genuinely care for the animals under their care, and the animals would be much better off if those keepers had more authority and decision-making responsibility for the animals’ welfare, training, interaction with humans, and habitat construction. I have been pleasantly surprised in almost all my visits with keeper staff, observing that they have a great fondness and interest in the best interests of the animals under their care. The real problem is obviously the people in authority that obtain their position due to management skills, budget-cutting expertise, scientific achievements, or the ability to navigate the diplomatic “mine field.” Somehow, having achieved those positions, they become the recognized authorities on everything having to do with animals by the media and hence the public, without careful examination of their real experience and expertise base in those areas.

My experience is with a vast variety of animals, both wild and domestic. While I spend most of my time with wild animals, I have—and have always had—a large number of domestic animals as well. At the time of this writing I have 15 domestic animals. 

Having had over 40,000 individual unprotected contacts with large cats alone, I feel I know something about their emotional makeup. I could give anecdote after anecdote to reinforce my assurance that they have emotional ranges and characteristics that rival that of humans. Certainly they are different: the large cats and most predators are also a combination of strong instincts together with a total lack of inhibitions, which means that sometimes “in the moment” they will act upon an instinctual stimulus without hesitation. This event gives rise to the attitude that a wild animal has “turned on” some human. Actually, it is a momentary event from the animal’s viewpoint, and an hour earlier or an hour later the animal would doubtless be affectionate and gentle with the same human.

I currently work, in my capacity as Animal Behaviorist at the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary, with 30 different exotic cats that had previously had adversarial experiences with humans and had learned to hate, resent, or be agitated by humans’ presence. I find that, in all of these cats, a huge range of emotions and deep sensitivity is present that would rival any human’s capacity to express emotions.

 The females flirt, they become irritable before coming in heat, they play flirtatious games such as moving away from me and waiting for me to follow them, then occasionally duplicating the action to see if I will continuously follow them; if I don’t, they will understand they’ve gone too far and come back to me, lying across my legs or beside me and end the flirtation. The females have quite different moods day-to-day, ranging from aloof indifference, to unbelievable affection, to irritation with any close contact. These moods depend on many internal and external causes, most of which I can identify. Each, of course, is an individual with her own personality characteristics.

The males, on the other hand, tend to be much more consistent, ranging from macho indifference, to aloof acceptance of affection, to playful testing of whether I deserve their respect. Again, it depends on the individual personality of the specific cat. Each cat is quite different, and unlike conventional thinking, the differences are more pronounced cat-to-cat, rather than species-to-species.

With other wild animals, I have experienced many deep and complex emotions, far beyond what I have experienced with humans, actually. As an example, I lived with a Canadian timber wolf for 17 years. When her German shepherd playmate died, she sniffed him, then sat back and gave the most soulful and heart-wrenching howl I’ve ever heard! It lasted quite a while. She’d never howled in that manner before, nor did she ever again afterwards. She was also quite a female. She would flirt, tease, be as loving and gentle as a lamb, and she was quite sensitive to my moods and would respond appropriately to whatever I was feeling with great care and thought. When she became quite ill, could not even lift her head, and compassion dictated I take her to the veterinarian and say “Goodbye,” as I was holding her head in my arms at the last minute while the veterinarian was preparing, she looked deeply into my eyes and, with great effort, lifted her head to lick my face one last time. I will never in my life forget that last effort; a desire to let me know I was doing the right thing and she loved me for it!

Recently, the female half of my North American river otter pair died. Penny had been with me for 12 years, and her mate, Petey, had been with me for 14 years. Petey cried out loud for over a week after her death, and his mood became so depressed I worried that he would die himself. He would lie in my arms for hours, and then he would want me to carry him about when I got up. Even swimming was devoid of any excitement, play, or activity. He would simply float about in the water for a while before getting out and going to sleep. For those that know anything about river otters, this is quite abnormal behavior. 

I initiated a nationwide search for a mate for Petey. A few months later I found Lulu in Montana. She is 3 years old. Within days after Lulu arrived, Petey became animated, and his old loving and playful personality emerged. But, he is different. He will now lie in my lap for long periods and look up at me with the softest, most loving look in his eyes. There is no question what he is saying. He’s saying, “I understand what you did for me, and believe me I appreciate it,” or something like that. He is so gentle and loving with me now, beyond anything that he exhibited for 14 years! He also plays with Lulu with increased gentleness and care, obviously exhibiting the fact that he has learned not to take his mate’s presence or love for granted. It makes me smile and feel great warmth inside every day when I’m watching them interact. Lulu had also lost her mate, and while I didn’t know her before, I gather that she also appreciates the relationship a great deal. She is unbelievably gentle with Petey, and she seems mindful of the fact he is quite a bit older and needs his rest. She then looks to me to substitute as a playmate, and she is quite loving and affectionate with me as well. 

I could write a book on anecdotes such as these. Perhaps one day I will. However, they only represent an infinitesimal view of the emotional ranges and intensity I have found with animals. I didn’t give any anecdotes on similar experiences with domestic animals. Without doubt, the readers have many similar stories just as intense that they could contribute in the domestic animal area. 

If you agree with the truths I have articulated in this article, there are many things that individuals can do to help shape future treatment and attitudes. For one thing, make sure the facilities that harbor animals in your area treat their animals with dignity and respect. Did you know that many facilities refer to their animals as “exhibits,” rather than giving them the dignity of individual names and the respect that would follow? Did you know that many facilities routinely break up family units and send a loving mate to another facility for breeding purposes without consideration to the relationship that is being shattered? Did you know that the documentation of most facilities refers to an animal in such ways as “specimen 1022,” or something to that effect? Not even the care and consideration of referring to their name? For identification, of course, a number could easily be inserted after their name. The mindset that perpetuates these procedures as acceptable reflects an attitude that needs to be changed. Only if the organization/facility harboring animals has an attitude of respect, dignity, and compassion towards their charges will they be able to educate the public properly and foster an appropriate concern for the future conservation, respect, and well-being of animals on this Earth heading into the future.

I hope I have given some voice to the thoughts shared by so many millions of people that hesitate to think they have the knowledge and expertise to contradict seemingly knowledgeable and experienced “experts” that question the emotional complexity and character of our animal friends. When you find someone that questions these self-evident truths, delve further into their background, actual experience, and motivation.

Traits of Wild Animals


Since this article encompasses wild animals generally, including predators and non-predators, it must necessarily be rather broad-spectrum in content. However, there are some characteristics and personality traits that are common to most wild animals and must be taken into account when attempting to either rehabilitate a wild animal or care for it in a sanctuary for the remainder of its life.

Wild animals have instincts that make them apprehensive of any animal/human that is not ordinarily present in its normal day-to-day encounters. This means that the first thing a human wishing to have any sort of relationship with this animal must do is earn its trust. This means that first you must convince the animal that you mean no harm. 

Then, you must speak and move in a manner that relaxes and assures the animal that you are perceptive enough to take into account its highly developed sensory mechanism. You must reinforce this feeling with enough time to make the animal comfortable with your presence. This element varies greatly depending upon the species of the animal, the age, and the individual characteristics of the specific animal with which you are dealing. I have found that individual traits vary a great deal even with siblings still together. For instance, I recently found that a mother raccoon had six kits living underneath my house. I started habituating myself with them when they were about two months old. Due to individual traits, two of the kits would come and eat within one foot of me, while two others would hardly come out of their hole while I was present. The other two were comfortable about four feet from me.

Once the animal has developed sufficient trust to approach you, respect must be developed quickly, unless you have a fondness for bleeding and open wounds. Fear and apprehension on the part of a wild animal, once removed, can lead to a total disregard of any being they don’t respect. Depending on the species, and whether it is a predator or not, lack of respect can lead to the animal looking at a human as food, a potential source of danger or competition, or a fun toy to toss around and tear up by any means necessary. 

I find it is extremely difficult to set forth a given set of guidelines that would apply to all members of any given species. When working with any wild animal, I react to what I feel that specific animal is thinking and what its apprehensions are. I NEVER use any discipline, relying on establishing a bond of trust and mutual respect based upon what makes the given animal comfortable with my presence to begin with, then progressing to the extent comfortable for the animal to whatever level of affection and interaction desired by the animal based upon incremental steps utilized over long periods of time at each interaction, and then upon incremental steps taken over days, weeks, and months.

Also, I do not use food rewards in my interaction. I rely exclusively on emotional enrichment and the desire on the part of the animal to have a human from whom the animal derives a feeling of comfort and security. I have nothing against using food as a training aid, but I find it much more rewarding to have a more pure relationship that is not based upon any reward other than emotions. I do occasionally hand feed our baby cheetahs and baby tigers. It is done just for additional bonding, and I do also occasionally sit with an adult tiger or other cat while he/she is eating in their house, just to keep them company. I never have had any possessive/aggressive action on the part of the cat as a result of doing so. It’s just another way I reassure the animal I am trustworthy and will not bother anything of theirs. 

There is an element of controversy, particularly among caregivers such as sanctuaries and rehabilitators, as to the wisdom and propriety of even having unprotected contact with humans. Like many issues, the answer lies shrouded in a complex response based upon the motivation, training, and ability of whoever seeks to have such contact. Negative contacts that only create anxiety, agitation, and irritation are not appropriate and serve no useful purpose for the animal. In many instances, where the proper personnel with proper training and motivation are not available, it is probably correct to limit or restrict unprotected contact with any wild animal. Where, however, the personnel are available that have all the elements necessary to insure positive, comforting, and reassuring contact with the animal, great benefit can be derived on the part of a wild animal from such contact. 

Wild animals are just as apprehensive and unsure of their safety around humans as are humans around wild animals. Wild animals that haven’t had positive and rewarding contact with a human look upon the fence separating them just as much as a safety barrier for them as do humans. Therefore, they can become upset, agitated, and anxious when humans get too close to their protective barrier.

However, the more contact the animals have with a human without a barrier between them that leaves the animal with a sense of comfort and security regarding the human, the less the animal will react with apprehension when other humans get near the fence. If, in addition, an affectionate relationship develops between a wild animal and a human caregiver, the result can be that it becomes much less stressful for the animal to see humans near their habitat and close to their fence. 

In addition to the benefit to the emotional well-being of the animal derived from appropriate unprotected contact, there are a number of other benefits: ability to perform simple medical procedures without sedation, ability to discover illness or injuries easily without sedation, safety for keepers due to conditioning that gives a margin of safety if an unexpected escape occurs, and the ability to move animals without the need for sedation or stress. 

Again, it must be stressed that it is better to have no unprotected contact rather than to have such contact by inexperienced or improperly motivated humans. Only humans that really understand the emotional needs of the animal and how to properly develop a bond based on trust, mutual respect, and understanding of the animal’s needs should have such contact. There is a great need for more organized training regimes and more programs from experienced behaviorists/trainers for facilities that want to embark on such enrichment for the benefit of their animals. 

Each animal—even within a given species—is a unique individual that needs individual understanding. The current conventional thinking that a species has a given set of characteristics, and that certain procedures and methods would be appropriate to apply to all members of that species, must be rejected in order to have a truly meaningful relationship with a given wild animal.

My experience is that the higher forms of mammals, and particularly the predators, have all the emotions possessed by humans. The main characteristic present in humans that is not present in a wild animal is inhibition. Therefore, you will quickly know what an animal is thinking in an unprotected environment, as it will be translated into action, either positive or negative from the standpoint of the human. While these concepts will undoubtedly be looked upon by some as anthropomorphic and therefore subject to question, I dislike that word as assuming humans are the sole possessors of various emotions and feelings and therefore their presence should be discounted in any other species. I know, from my years of experience, that attitude is not only extremely arrogant, it is wrong. If one approaches a wild animal with the attitude that it is entitled to respect for its feelings, emotions, and apprehensions, one will have a much better chance of establishing a meaningful and mutually rewarding relationship and continuing positive experiences with the animals.

Raising and Feeding Baby Tigers

baby tiger licking stuffed animal

This article is primarily meant for the benefit of sanctuaries, zoos, and other professional animal caregivers. It is in no way meant to encourage individuals to obtain or own young tigers. All the articles I have written on this subject explain why it is not appropriate for either the human or the tiger to be owned by private ownership, except in those very, very rare circumstances where the human has the knowledge, experience, finances, stability, and property to embark on such a dangerous and complicated endeavor for the perhaps 25 years the cat will live. This is not an elitist viewpoint. I am in favor of any animal receiving a happy, healthy, and stress-free existence, regardless of the source. Rather, it is based upon years of time spent with exotic cats and observing how few individuals have the rudimentary skills necessary to interact with an exotic cat safely, much less give it the security and support it needs. 

At the International Exotic Feline Sanctuary, we have just weaned three white tiger cubs we raised from the age of 4 weeks to their current 5 months. Since we are a sanctuary, not a breeding facility, we don’t often get very young cubs to raise. While I have raised young cubs, I wouldn’t consider myself highly experienced in the skills of bottle-feeding young cubs, and therefore sought out as much information as I could find to ensure we were using the very latest research for successfully rearing baby tigers. 

I was surprised at the lack of good information on the Internet, no matter how diligently I searched. I got information anecdotally from several individuals I knew and trusted who had raised cubs frequently. I decided it would be a good idea to publish our experience and techniques for raising these cubs, as they have been extremely healthy and trouble-free throughout their bottle-feeding period, and they are now very healthy young tigers weighing approximately 50-60 pounds each. I hope this information helps other sanctuaries, zoos, and other caregivers that need this information.

First Four Weeks

For the first two days, their mother nursed the cubs. After being taken from their mother, they were given horse colostrums for 5 days. Their formula for the first four weeks was one ounce of Esbilac added to two ounces of water and 2 ccs of Nutri-Cal. They were each fed this formula 4-8 times a day until they were taking their bottle regularly. 

It was at this point that the cubs were delivered to IEFS.

After that period, their formula was changed to the following: 

Basic formula:

Esbilac 1 can, 12 oz.     (powder) 

Goat milk 1 can, 12 oz.    (fluid)                 

Nutri-cal 1 tube, 4.25 oz. (paste)                         

Bottled water to make one gallon

In addition, we added Gerber stage 2 baby food. We used 6 jars, 2.5 oz. each jar, of the following varieties:

2 jars turkey Gerber stage 2 baby food

2 jars chicken Gerber stage 2 baby food

2 jars beef Gerber stage 2 baby food (veal Gerber stage 2 baby food can be 

substituted for beef if necessary)

See at weekly data after the formula chart below: we added additional baby food at 8 weeks of age, and we added ground turkey to the formula at 10 weeks of age. We increased the amount of ground turkey added to the formula at 12 weeks of age.

Gerber stage 2 baby food is highly recommended, as it does not contain any onion, which is toxic to exotic cats.

Directions for Making Formula

Always wash your hands before touching anything that will be in contact with the cubs!!

1.  Heat a few ounces of bottled water to warm 

2.  Pour the warm bottled water into the blender

3.  Add the entire tube of Nutri-cal into the warm water (having the water warm simply helps dissolve the Nutra-cal) 

4.  Blend Nutri-cal into the water while opening up baby food jars

5.  Add the baby food to the blender  

6.  Liquefy the contents of the blender until thoroughly mixed (about 5 minutes) 

7.  While the blender is still on liquefy, begin slowly adding the Esbilac powder to the mixture – if added too fast, the Esbilac will begin to clump and will take longer to mix 

8.  Add the goat’s milk to the blender at this time to help the Esbilac dissolve into the mixture

9.  Let the mixture continue to blend for a few minutes to make sure well blended 

10.  Pour mixture into a one-gallon container 

11.  Add enough bottled water to the mixture to make one gallon (use some bottled water to rinse out the blender to get the last of the mixture) 

12.  This gallon will be good for about 2 days in the refrigerator – do not keep longer than that.  Before pouring formula into the bottles, be sure to stir or shake the container well.  The baby food especially tends to fall to the bottom.  

13. Pour a specified amount of formula into the bottles.  Heat the bottles to warm the formula.  Remember that the outside of the bottle will warm faster than the liquid inside, and always test the temperature of the formula by dabbing a few drops on your arm.  Do not put nipples in the microwave – this will quickly affect their elastic properties. 

Understand that this much formula was made for 3 tiger cubs. Since you don’t want to keep the formula refrigerated for more than 2 days, you would obviously make proportionately less for fewer cubs.


It is very important that the area in which the cubs are kept is as clean as possible, and anyone who comes into contact with the cubs should take precautionary measures to keep it so.  The area in which our cubs lived was scrubbed prior to their arrival with a 50/50 bleach and water solution.  The floors were mopped with water and a capful of bleach daily.  A footbath concentration of 50/50 bleach and water was always present at the door.  It was required to step in this solution before walking into the cub area.  Anyone who had contact with the cubs was required to wash their hands before contact.  Disinfectant spray was also used on the gates and latches on a regular basis.  Any fecal matter collected was removed immediately and the area disinfected.

Bottle Washing

The bottles should be kept as clean as possible.  We used very hot water, antibacterial dish soap and a bottlebrush.  All parts of the bottle (bottle, cap, nipple, etc.) must be disassembled and scrubbed individually.  Be sure to scrub inside of the nipple with a smaller brush.  The bottlebrushes should be replaced every so often so a good, firm, and clean brush is used.  The bottles and parts should be rinsed with hot water.  After all washing is through, soak the bottles and parts in a sinkful of clean water with a capful of bleach to sterilize.  Do not let the bottles soak for more than about 5-10 minutes.  To prevent residue on the bottles, dry all parts immediately with a paper towel.


It is very important to use the correct-sized nipples for the cubs to prevent them from drinking too fast and getting milk into their lungs.  At 5 weeks of age, we were using three-holed nipples.  We used an exacto knife to enlarge the holes slightly as the cubs got older.  At 10 weeks of age, ground turkey was put into their formula.  Due to the tendency of the turkey to clump and clog the nipples, we began using crosscut nipples.  We used an exacto knife to adjust the size of these crosscuts as the cubs got older.  We regularly replaced the nipples when they became sticky or eventually chewed up.


Be sure to feed the cubs with the bottle held at an angle which insures that no air is taken with the formula. Have the cub standing with all four feet on the floor and its head angled up to insure that no fluid enters its lungs. Always watch the cub while it is feeding to make sure that it maintains a position that insures no fluid enters the lungs; perhaps the most dangerous part of bottle-feeding young cubs. If the cub slows down or stops feeding, just give it a few minutes to relax then try again.

Formula Chart

We fed in accordance with the following chart:

(A bottle was made for each cub with the specified number of ounces for that week; however, an additional bottle was also made in case any cub wanted more to drink.) 

Number of Weeks Old 5 wks6 wks7 wks8 wks9 wks10 wks 11 wks12 wks 13 wks14 wks15 wks
Number of ounces offers per feeding: 45 – 678999910 – 1310 – 1310 – 13
Number of ounces consumed on average per feeding: 45.577.57.5678788
Number of times feed daily: 44444333221
Time of Day fed (morning to night)8, 12, 5, 108, 12, 5 108, 12, 5, 108, 12, 5 108, 12, 5, 108, 12, 58, 12, 58, 58, 58, 512

Six Weeks Old

At this time, we reduced the Nutri-cal to 1/2 of a 4.25 oz. Tube. We also began feeding small amounts of ground turkey to the cubs after their bottle at each meal to begin teaching them to eat solid food. Concentrated crystalline taurine was added to the cubs’ bottles also in the amount of 200 mg per cub per day. 

Ten Weeks Old

We began adding Missing Link Supplement in the amount of 1/4 tsp. per cub per feeding. We also added 2.5 oz of ground turkey to the formula. The ground turkey was added at the same step as the baby food and was liquefied in the blender for 5 minutes to blend the meat. It is important to thoroughly blend this meat.  When the formula sits for a while, the ground turkey in the formula tends to clump together and make strings.  It is more important than ever to stir or shake the formula container to properly mix.  As more ground turkey is added to the formula, it is even a good idea to stir what is in the gallon container and then re-blend the amount of formula you plan to pour into the bottles.  This will help prevent ground turkey strings from clogging up the nipples when the cubs are trying to drink.  At this time, the cubs were also given a pound of meat each per day in addition to their formula.  

 In addition, we began adding Dallas Crown meat to begin the process of giving the cubs what they would ultimately be eating as adults. Initially, the proportion of Dallas Crown to ground turkey was 1:4. We were giving each cub a pound a day initially.

Twelve Weeks Old

We began adding Pet-Tabs vitamins in the cubs’ meat in the amount of 1 Pet Tab per cub per day. We also increased the amount of ground turkey in the formula to 5 oz.

Here is the supplement schedule we used week by week:

No calcium was used during the first week of introducing ground turkey to the cubs (6 weeks of age).  At 7 weeks of age, a pinch of calcium was added to the meat.  At 10 weeks, Missing Link was added to the meat along with calcium.  At 12 weeks, Pet-Tabs were also added to the meat.  Concentrated crystalline taurine was given to the cubs in their bottles beginning at 6 weeks of age (200 mg per cub per day).  As the cubs decreased the amount of formula they were drinking and increased the amount of solid meat they were eating, the taurine was put into their meat instead of their bottles.  By 16 weeks, about 400 mg per cub per day was added to the meat. Once the cubs were receiving all Dallas Crown, the amount of taurine was cut to 200 mg per day. 

Number of Weeks7 wks8 wks9 wks10 wks11 wks12 wks13 wks14 wks15 wks16 wks
CalciumPinch1/8 tsp1/8 tsp1/4 tsp1/2 tsp1/2 tsp1/2 tsp1/2 tsp3/4 tsp3/4 tsp
Missing LinkNoneNoneNone1/4 tsp1/4 tsp1/2 tsp1/2 tsp1/2 tsp3/4 tsp3/4 tsp
Pet TabsNoneNoneNoneNoneNone11122
** Supplements stayed the same for the 17 and 18 weeks of age

Here is the solid meat schedule we used week by week:

Small amounts of ground turkey were introduced to the cubs by hand at 6 weeks of age.  All Dallas Crown used was blended in a food processor.

Number of Weeks6 wks7 wks8 wks9 wks10 wks11 wks12 wks13 wks14 wks15 wks16 wks
Amount of Meat2-3 oz.4-8 oz.8-12 oz.12-16 oz.1 lb.1 1/2 lbs.2 lbs.2 1/2 lbs.2 3/4-3 lbs.3 1/2 lbs3 1/2 lbs.
Number of times fed daily11125544333
Portion of Dallas CrownNoneNoneNoneNone1/41/23/47/97/9AllAll


The cubs were stimulated to urinate and defecate from the day they were born once a day until they were about 13-14 weeks at the end of one of their bottle-feedings.  We used baby wipes to stimulate.  If they did not defecate at the time of stimulation, or if they defecated only a very small amount, then we tried to stimulate them again at the next feeding.  The cubs began to urinate on their own around 6 weeks.  At 13-14 weeks of age, a little stimulation was provided for defecation.  By 15 weeks, the cubs were defecating and on their own.

Mineral Oil

Mineral oil was used to help defecation.  Each cub was different.  The mineral oil was started when baby food was added to the cubs’ formula (when incisors were majority of the way in, before 5 weeks old).  For our male cubs, 1 cc of mineral oil was added two different times daily to their bottles. For our female cub, 1/2 cc of mineral oil was added two different times daily to her bottle.  The mineral oil was put in their bottles at the feeding times surrounding the stimulation.  For instance, feeding times occurred at 8 am, 12 noon, and 5 pm.  At the noon feeding, the cubs were stimulated.  Therefore the mineral oil was put in their bottles at 8 am and at 5 pm.  The amount of mineral oil was adjusted according to the appearance of their stool, especially when solid meat was introduced.  If the amount was changed, it was not changed again for at least a day in order to allow the cubs to acclimate to the new dose.  Mineral oil was lessened as the cubs grew older and their diet stabilized and was eventually removed altogether when the cubs were about 9 weeks of age.


We kept a careful check on the condition and progress of teething of our cubs. We do not advocate beginning to feed solid food until the cubs’ eyeteeth are coming all the way in. It can vary from cub to cub, but here is our experience:

Number of weeks old55-66-77-89
Condition of teethAll incisors throughGums are swollen, eye teeth not broken through but protrudingEye teeth broke through, came inGums swollen, molars coming inAll molars through


Here is a chart showing the average weight of our cubs week by week. We feel that their progress was about as it should have been. The cubs always looked like their condition was about as it should have been:

Number of Weeks5 1/27 1/288 1/29 1/2101112131415
Weight7-8 lbs9-10 lbs12-13 lbs12-14 lbs16-17 lbs19-20 lbs20-22 lbs21-26 lbs22-29 lbs27-34 lbs29-35lbs


Our veterinarian, Dr. Greg Moore, vaccinated in the following quantities and times:

Vaccines were administered at 7, 10, and 13 weeks of age.

Fel-O-Vax IV

Brand Fort Dodge 

1 ml per shot per cub 

The shot is for:   Feline Rhinotracheitis, Calici, Panleukopenia, Chlamydia Psittaci Vaccine                             

Killed virus and Chlamydia

In Conculusion

At sixteen weeks of age we considered the cubs weaned and eating 3 times a day. At this point they were receiving all Dallas Crown with the same supplements as previously. We continued to give a bottle at their noon feeding utilizing the same formula without any baby food. We felt this was a good transition for the cubs and additional insurance that they were receiving all the nutritional needs they required. It was also a social interaction with their human caregivers that they seemed to enjoy very much. As of this writing, the cubs are five months old and weigh 50-60 pounds. 

Of course, I have only addressed the cubs’ nutritional needs in this article. We at the International Exotic Feline Sanctuary feel that their emotional needs are just as important to the cubs’ well-being, health, and happiness, if not more so. I have not gone into all the techniques we are using to insure that they have a happy childhood, because it is quite complicated, extensive, and intricate. It would take at least as long as writing about their nutritional development. Those facilities that are interested are welcome to contact us for this information. We are very pleased with their interaction with their human caregivers and the respect which both the cats and the humans show to each other. 

I would like to express my appreciation to one of our keepers, Ms. Janelle Lemke, for her assistance in preparing this information. Janelle was primarily responsible for preparing the formula and meat for the cubs, and she kept careful records, which were used in this article. 

 Hopefully, this data will assist others that are faced with the daunting task of raising young tiger cubs. Certainly, we recognize that there are a number of different approaches and diets that have probably been successfully used; the above information is perhaps just one of them. At least it will give others a point of departure for their nutritionist and/or veterinarian.