Exotic animal smuggling a growing problem

Posted at 10:43 PM, Oct 30, 2017

We often hear about drugs and human trafficking at our border crossings, but you might remember in August a teenager was charged with trying to smuggle a Bengal tiger cub into the United States through a California border community.

It was odd, and pictures of the cub were awfully cute. But a closer look finds this is a bigger issue than many of us may realize, and we might be part of the problem without even knowing it.

Imagine the shock for customs officers when they found the little guy during an inspection at the Otay border crossing.

“There it was, right there on the floor of the car, a tiger cub,” said Joe Misenhelter.

Misenhelter is Assistant Port Director for Customs and Border Protection. Between pedestrians and vehicles, there are more international entries into the United States at Otay Mesa and San Ysidro on a daily basis than LAX and JFK airports combined.

“We see a lot of unusual things,” adds Misenhelter. "Birds, reptiles, and all kinds of animal products are confiscated daily. It’s sad. We’re talking about a living thing here and we all care about that. Then the people are smuggling them in obviously for profit.”

The little tiger cub was bought in Mexico for $300. He’s worth about $1,500 in the United States.

“Not surprised at all,” says Bobbi Brink.

Brink is the founder of Lions, Tigers, and Bears Animal Rescue in Alpine, Calif. and she’s very familiar with the problem of animal smuggling.

She says this is not an isolated incident and is perpetuated by tourist traps.

“They’re bred for nothing more than profit and they pull the babies from their moms before they’re even eight to 10 days old, before their eyes open,” says Brink.

Brink is talking about tourist photo ops with tiger cubs in places like the Habana Banana south of Ensenada, where the practice is legal.

For a fee between $35 and $60 -- that supposedly goes to big cat conservation efforts -- tourists can enter a cage full of cute little tiger cubs to pet and take photos.

ABC15 sister station 10News was there on a day when one of the cruise ships was in port, and it was packed.

“It’s really sad because they lie to the public and they tell you it’s conservation or they’re a sanctuary, or they’re rescuing these animals," say Brink. "They’re not rescuing babies."

An employee at the Habana Banana told us that after six months, the cubs are retired and sent to a sanctuary. Brink claims that’s not always the case in Mexico or in the U.S. Instead, she says the cubs are often replaced and sold to almost anyone.

According to the non-profit Big Cat Rescue, the cubs are shipped off to roadside zoos, tourist attractions, and some are killed for their body parts.

Very few are lucky and end up in a place like Lions, Tigers, and Bears.

“So this is Bukari, and this is Jillian, and this is Suri,” says Brink, showing off three beautiful lions she rescued from a failed big cat attraction in Louisiana. She has 65 animals she’s rescued at her no kill, no breed sanctuary.

Some are from states where owning a big cat is completely legal. Like those tourist traps in Mexico, they are raised for profit.

Lions, Tigers, and Bears is one of the few accredited big cat sanctuaries in the United States. It is a great place for these animals to come and live out the rest of their lives. But you might be surprised to learn that according to the World Wildlife Fund, there are about 3,200 big cats left in the wild.

Shockingly, because of a lack of federal regulation, there are over 5,000 big cats in the backyards of homes in the United States.

“And there’s more in the state of Texas than there are in the wild. And there are more big cats in the state of Florida than anywhere in the world,” adds Brink.

Brink is fighting to change legislation around the country. But says the best way you can help is to avoid these tourist traps and don’t pay to take a picture.

“If people stop paying, then they’ll stop doing it to the animals,” says Brink.

Brink also advises that it’s important to look for the proper accreditation such as an AZA or ASA zoo or sanctuary.

A proper zoo would never allow you to hold a tiger cub and take a picture with it. If you have questions about a location, click on the highlighted links for a list of accredited zoos and sanctuaries.