Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!

The week of the 4th of July, Rachel and I had a great visit from our kids and grandkids, Laurel, Matt, Emma, and Ian. We took them to explore a variety of sites, including our favorite beaches, parks, and restaurants around Sarasota. Ian saw his first full-length movie (Toy Story 4) and it kept his attention all the way through. He must have some Imhoff movie DNA.

One of the interesting parks that we visited was the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary. This park serves as a sanctuary for a wide variety of animals. The kids enjoyed watching the bears, monkeys, chimpanzees, lions, tigers, and even a giraffe. Some enclosures offered lots of space and others not so much. Rachel and I were surprised to encounter two animals that we had never seen before. We had not even heard of them. And we had visited zoos across the country and even gone on safaris in Africa. We were introduced to the “liger” and “tigon”.

A handsome Tigon showing off his stripes
A handsome Tigon showing off his stripes

A liger is the hybrid offspring of a male lion and female tiger. A tigon is the hybrid offspring of a male tiger and female lion. We saw one of each, and they shared the characteristics of both lions and tigers. We thought the liger looked like a HUGE lion. The tigon had the dramatic stripes of a tiger. The liger is the world’s largest cat, due to “gigantism” during the early growing years. They can grow to a length of 12 feet. None of us could believe the height of the liger we saw, as he stood up on his hind legs to grab a piece of meat from a worker. Tigons are described as being much smaller than their parents. The males of both species are reported to be sterile.

Writings about the liger and tigon date back to the early 19th century. They have always been bred in captivity. It sounded like some breeding occurred by accident when a lion and tiger were allowed to share the same space. Surprise! Other times, the breeding was done on purpose to create the hybrid animals. There are around 30 ligers living in zoos and parks in the U.S. There are around 20 more living in China. The total population across the planet is less than 100, all living in captivity. Tigons are even less common than ligers. What a surprise to encounter these rare animals in a small park in Sarasota, Florida.

Matt, Laurel, Rachel, and I talked about the ligers and tigons throughout the rest of the day. The more we talked, the more my thoughts became muddled about seeing these majestic animals. I had lots of questions. Where had the liger and tigon come from? Where had the lion and tiger that were their parents come from? Were they conceived by accident, or did some mad scientist decide to cross breed two totally different types of animals? Why would someone want to do that? What kind of ethical zoo or animal park would allow that to happen? If scientists have tried to breed lions and tigers, what other kinds of experiments have happened, and how did they turn out?

This did not sound like something that a legitimate, scientific organization would approve of. As a visitor to the park, was I contributing to the exploitation of these special animals? But then, was it that different than the tens of thousand of wild animals, forced to live in captivity in zoos and parks? Was it any worse for the animals than traveling with a circus, entertaining crowds every day?

I did some research about ligers and tigons and came across a quote on the website of an organization called, Big Cat Rescue (www.bigcatrescue.org). Here is what it said.

“The only reason that ligers, tigons, white lions, or white tigers exist at all is because stupid people will pay to see them. They serve no conservation value and breeding them only results in these huge and majestic cats spending 10 to 20 years behind bars.”

I guess I’m still glad that I saw the liger and tigon. However, I do agree with the sentiment of the statement by Big Cat Rescue. Something is not right with this picture.

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