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Tiger tug-of-war: Can this be a good thing?

During the month of February, Dartmoor Zoo began offering tug-of-war with their male tiger, Dragan, or their lion, Jasiri, as part of an enrichment programme bringing both tourists and big cats together in a safe and enriching way. However, the news was received with a vociferous backlash from animal rights groups who claimed the zoo was exploiting the big cats for money without considering their welfare.

So who, if anyone, is right?

An Animal rights view

Animal rights groups have been vocal in stating that the practice does not inspire respect for the animals, strongly urging the zoo to stop the activity. Other groups also jumped on board stating that there could be issues with the big cats’ teeth, that the big cats wouldn’t be fed if they didn’t win the game, that they should be in the wild and that this practice is highly unnatural for a big cat to perform.

Issues of cruelty have been put forward in a petition calling for the zoo to cease the tug-of-war. The petition also says that they feel the zoo is acting more like a circus by having people pay (£15pp) to play with the big cats. The petition criticises the zoo’s response that it provides mental and physical stimulation and stating that instead, this activity reduces these majestic animals to play things.

Response from the zoo

Zoo owner, Benjamin Mee, was quick to defend their actions outlining why the enrichment programme has been put in place and is unlikely to go anywhere soon. He claims that this activity is the right action to take as it not only helps to enrich the big cats participating, but also helps raise awareness and much needed funding for the zoo. The zoo itself is a charity, relying on donations and entrance fees for their running costs, and the money raised from this tug-of-war activity will help upgrade the 30-year-old lion house, something much in need of a rebuild.

Mee also states that the big cats enjoy playing as it emulates actions they would do in the wild. He reiterates that as these two species of big cats are quickly losing numbers in the wild, there is an urgent need for people to realise the issue is a serious one and and adds that a close encounter with the animals is a fantastic way of engaging the public.

Weighing it up

In these situations it is important to look at both sides of the issue. As such, here are the main arguments brought against the zoo and how they can be answered.

Respect – Animal rights activists are concerned that this tug-of-war minimises the respect visitors will have for the big cats, potentially making them see them as big kitties rather than apex predators. However, this close interaction may actually result in the opposite, where people can feel just how strong these predators actually are, creating an awe-inspiring encounter that will always be remembered.

Teeth – Issues have been raised regarding how much pressure will be on the big cats’ teeth in order to pull back on the food at the end of the rope. In the wild, big cats are known to drag around entire carcasses of animals a lot bigger and heavier than four humans. Their teeth are designed for grabbing onto moving prey and ripping off chunks. Mee is also quoted as saying that there was a strong focus on dental work when initially taking over the zoo as the predators were suffering from poor teeth.

No food – Another concern has been that the big cats won’t get fed unless they win. This fear appears unfounded, as videos show that the big cats simply rip the food from the end of the rope and stalk off with it if they don’t feel like playing. Mee has also corroborated this and there are videos on the Dartmoor Zoo Facebook page showing Dragan walking off with his prize without even playing.

Unnatural – The calls that this game is unnatural have more merit, in that it IS less likely for a big cat to be pulling so hard

on a small piece of meat. But, in a captive setting it is very difficult to replicate everything a big cat would do in the wild – there’s no live prey thrown in for hunting practice for example (this is illegal and would reflect poor welfare on the prey animal). With this in mind, zoos have to come up with a range of other methods to encourage big cats to move around to stay fit and healthy.

The feeding pole commonly used in zoos for big cats, has proved particularly effective, though lions and tigers are not usually seen scaling ten feet up into a tree for food. The feeding pole has also been shown in studies to actually reduce the chances of early onset arthritis, with tigers showing a healthier bone structure, much more similar to their wild counterparts.

Stichting Leeuw in the Netherlands, has created an innovative hunting simulator that contains a series of pulleys. The operator can use the pulley to move meat around the enclosure, encouraging hunting behaviours and techniques from the big cats that use it. Other zoos have used remote control cars with food attached to encourage big cats to “hunt”.

Essentially, just because it is not specifically natural, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In the wild, these big cats would use up a lot more energy, move more, build better muscle and have increased stamina simply because they need to hunt. Captive big cats are given their food easily, which means they don’t need to hunt, use energy, or even really move. This can lead to stereotypical behaviour (repetitive or abnormal behaviours) and overweight, unhealthy animals.

Exploitation – The zoo is making money from these encounters, but not in a way that is negative to the big cat. In fact, there is nothing forcing the animal to participate in the event at all, with both Dragan and Jasiri having the option to walk away at any time. All facilities containing animals need funding in some form or another with entrance tickets already arguably, part of the exploitation process.


As a captive tiger welfare charity, we would, of course, prefer to see tigers in the wild. However, with human encroachment growing at a rapid pace, tiger habitat is rapidly shrinking. Zoos have a responsibility to provide top-quality habitats alongside well-designed enrichment programmes. These should be specifically designed to meet the individual needs of the tigers (and other animals), encouraging them to perform their full behavioural repertoire. Whilst some of these enrichment practices may not be strictly natural, they do encourage the animal to use their bodies, muscles and brains, in a closer approximation to the way nature intended them to. As such, enrichment attempts should be applauded not reviled.

The sad reality is that animals are in captivity because of us. Therefore, doesn’t this mean that we have an obligation to enrich their lives as much as we can considering we can’t give them their natural environment?

So, what do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

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