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The Strange and Dangerous World of America’s Big Cat People

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Rachel Nuwer | Longreads | March 2020 | 28 minutes (7,033 words)

You can listen to our four-part “Cat People” podcast series on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

It’s a gloomy April afternoon in rural Oklahoma, and I’m sitting on the floor of a fluorescent-lit room at a roadside zoo with Nova, a 12-week-old tiliger. She looks like a tiger cub, but she’s actually a crossbreed, an unnatural combination of a tiger father and a mother born of a tiger and a lion. That unique genetic makeup places a higher price tag on cubs like Nova, and makes it easier, legally speaking, to abuse and exploit them. Endangered species protections don’t apply to artificial breeds such as tiligers. Hybridization, however, has done nothing to quell Nova’s predatory instincts. For the umpteenth time during the past six minutes, she lunges at my face, claws splayed and mouth ajar — only to be halted mid-leap as her handler jerks her harness. Unphased, Nova gets right back to pouncing.

With her dusty blue eyes, sherbet-colored paws, and prominent black stripes, Nova is adorable. But she also weighs 30 pounds and has teeth like a Doberman’s and claws the size of jumbo shrimp. Nova’s handler, a woman with long brown hair who tells me she recently retired from her IT job at a South Dakota bank to live out her dream of working with exotic cats, scolds the rambunctious tiliger in a goo-goo-ga-ga voice: “Nooooo, nooooo, you calms down!” Nova is teething, the handler explains, so she just wants something to chew on. The handler reaches for one of the tatty stuffed animals strewn around the room — a substitute, I guess, for my limbs. In that moment of distraction, Nova lunges. She lands her mark, chomping into the bicep of my producer, Graham Lee Brewer.

“Ooo, she got me!” Lee Brewer grimaces as he attempts to pull away from the determined predator. Nova’s handler has to pry the tiliger’s jaws open to detach her. After the incident, the woman conveniently checks her watch: “OK, you guys, time is up!”

I paid $80 for the pleasure of spending 12 minutes with Nova, but I’m glad the experience, billed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, is over. On our way out, we pass more than a dozen adult tigers yowling and pacing cages the size of small classrooms. Nearby signs solicit donations. You are their only hope. Sponsor a cabin or compound today! In the safety of our car, Lee Brewer rolls up his sleeve, exposing a swollen red welt. “Look at my gnarly tiger bite,” he chuckles. “I tried to play it off but I was like, this fuckin’ hurts!”

It’s not the first time I’ve seen this world up-close; I spent the better part of eight years investigating wildlife trafficking around the world. During my travels, I visited farms in China and Laos where tigers are raised like pigs, examined traditional medicine in Vietnam, ate what I was told was tiger bone “cake,” and tracked some of the world’s last remaining wild tigers in India. Almost everywhere I went, tigers were suffering and their numbers were on the decline because of human behavior. Until recently, though, I had no idea the United States was part of the problem. Read more…