These are just some of my observations over the last 24 years as I have
trained some 400 big cats and met hundreds more. By big cats, I only
mean the Panthera family (lions, tigers, leopard, jaguars and hybrids)
all the rest are in a different category and the small cats (including
cheetah and pumas) are in a different class. They will kill you, but
it is not with the same intent and aggressive behavior. Male lions are 100 times harder to train than tigers.
What is training?
Training is bridging the gap between what you want the animal to do
and getting him to do it. It is the language that you use to talk to
animals if you want them to do something. A animal is not trained
unless it will do basic behaviors regularly and repeatedly without
Behavior in response to command is a language you create. This
language allows you to communicate with big cats. Without this
language put in place, you have random communication with the cat and
safety is precarious.
Many people try to "train" cats with food. This type of reward system
creates a food drive that if used improperly can lead to and create a dangerous
response. If you are working a cat outside of a cage like this, when
no food is available, you are no longer in control. You can bridge certain behaviors with food, but you must then do them without, to assure the behavior is solid. A trained cat will walk into a strange place and do what you want when
you want because you ask it, not because you feed it.
What constiutes a trained big cat?
Being able to have a cat walk over to you after
you open the door and lay down at your feet and then allow you to make
contact is the beginning of a safe relationship. Having the cat stay
in the cage with the door open until you request it to exit is
essential to safety.
Trained cats will sit, come, stay, steady, back up, lay down, go to,
get on etc... just like a trained obedience dog will. Trained cats
will do this regularly and repeatedly, inside or outside of the cage
without food rewards. A trained cat will climb onto a seat or table 5
to 10 times in a row without breaking down.
One of the first things our more than 50 lions, tigers, leopards,
liger's and jaguars are trained to do, is come out of a door or gate,
in response to us calling their name. These animals are in groups of up to 10 or
more, they have to wait their turn, and not push past any opening.
Most of them have to do this 2 x a day as they are taken in from multi
acre habitats, and brought into the main house for care, observation
and feeding with full contact with the trainers the whole time.
A cat that you fool around with in a cage or through a cage is not
trained. Without solid behaviors that are regular and repeatable you
are at risk. The only sure way you know what the animal will do is
when it does what you ask repeatedly.
Will I be able to train my own big cat?
Real animal trainers who work big cats (the couple dozen + or - that
exist), very rarely if ever have accidents with members of the public.
Trainers are bitten and even sometimes killed, while working and
always by making stupid mistakes. Trained big cats are rare; 99.9% of
all big cats are not trained.
In my experience, only 1 in 8 cats will ever be trained enough to have
a contact relationship with you, when it's an adult of 7 years or
more. Most stop being interested in the first 3 years and become
aggressive when asked to work, many within a year. It takes a lot of
time, many many hours a week to start training that will usually end
in disappointment after a few years and a few thousand hours but to
have real trained cats that is the only way: try and try again.
The time it takes and commitment to train a big cat is huge and goes
on for years. I have meet no one who understands and practices it who
is not doing it professionally i.e. being paid on a regular basis to
have cats out of cage and who has no other job and does only animal
training full time. Everyone else is generally fooling around and is a
hazard to them self and any who come in contact with their cats.
Do not expect to understand Tigerese half as fast as you would
Chinese. It takes ten years + of full time big cat experienced with many
different animals under the guidance of a trainer to begin to
understand big cat training. Animal training is a set of experiences that must be had in order to
A single person or a pair of people cannot work a big cat outside of
a cage. It takes a team of highly trained people to walk and work with
a big cat. 3 to 4 or more people with years of experience are needed
to make it happen safely.
Will my big cat be safe to handle if I raise it properly?
So many people are caught up in what I call the" Born Free Myth"
thinking that if they care for an infant cat it will bond to them and
have a less dangerous relationship with them. Raising a cat from birth
or from young has very little to do if anything with it growing up and
having a relationship of trust and contact with it throughout its
life. Most pro trainers prefer to start cats training at 1 year old
this prevents many of the juvenile behaviors of testing and aggressive
play from being a part of the trainers relationship. Many cats are very nice when they are young, but may become killers as they mature, no matter how you treat them.
Of course their are exceptions to every rule and many a cub, the
keeper/handler/pet owner thinks they have the perfect one, but they
are 1 in a thousand and you cannot tell you have one until it is seven
to ten years old and by that time it's usually too late and someone
has paid the price.
As I hear over and %^*#@ OVER Roy's tiger attacked him! As one news article says, "Roy, who
has taken medication for high blood pressure for years, says he had
recently begun to suffer dizzy spells." This one spell,
unfortunately, occurred in the presence of a very large tiger. "I
started feeling kind of weak," says Roy, who still speaks slowly but
has recovered most of his German-accented speech. "I fell over."
If you fall over even the best of cats will give you a bite. Trainers
need to stay on their feet and be in top physical shape. Roy was not
in top shape; he had heart trouble. However, just add a sense of perspective, if he was driving on the highway it could have been much worse.
I still think this is your right to have your own tiger and to be
killed by your own tiger; just keep it in a cage forever and don't let
anyone else near you or watch you have it happen.
I often say that as a MD, I can talk you
trough taking out someone's kidney but I cannot talk you through tiger
training. You have to live it to understand it.
This article is copyrighted 2005 by Dr. Bhagavan Antle, Director of T.I.G.E.R.S. www.tigerfriends.com All rights are reserved.