Captive Big Cats and Public Safety...

        The Numbers Don’t Lie !!...




                                            By Zuzana Kukol and Scott Shoemaker


 Every time there is a tragic unusual accident, the media gets into heated hysteria to milk the story, often not researching the subject and causing damage in the process by not presenting the entire picture.


They especially love the fatal exotic animal mauling accidents, with big cat attacks being their favorite, turning them into sensationalized pieces resembling Hollywood horror movie scripts.


 Private owners of captive big cats, pet tigers especially, have been coming under ever increasing attacks from the media bandwagon, mostly fueled by the agenda of the animal rights (AR) activists groups. Under the guise of pretending to care for public safety and using well meaning, but uninformed grieving relatives of the exotic cat attack victims as their pawns, they hide their real agenda: to end the captive keeping of animals.


 The best method of discrediting the claims of big cats being a public safety issue and to show no need for additional regulation is to look at the real numbers, facts don’t lie.


  According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) website and various news sources, 20 people were fatally mauled by captive big cats in the USA in the last 17.5 years ( between 1990 and 10/2008), which is one death per year (1.1). (PETA is an animal rights group opposed to captive keeping of all animals.) For captive reptiles, the rate is one and a half death per year.


 One fatality was by leopard, one by jaguar, one by liger, 2 by lions and 14 by tigers. (The 20th death cited by PETA was an apparent suicide of a woman climbing into lions' cage at the AZA accredited [The American Zoo and Aquarium Association] National Zoo at Washington DC).


 One of the tigers is responsible for the deaths of 2 people, its female owner and male handler. None of these deaths were the result of the exotic cats unsupervised off the private owners’ or zoo's property. Instead, all victims were voluntarily on the property where the animal was kept, be it owner(s), handlers, employees, friends or visitors wanting to see the animals. The only person killed in public was a circus trainer in Pennsylvania in 1997 while he was doing his job and the tiger was caged.


Cases breakdown:
-four fatalities at AZA zoos (1 visitor, 2 keepers, 1 suicidal woman claiming into lions' cage)
-one teenager voluntarily posing for pictures, famous Haley's act (where were the parents?)
-three kids, younger than teens, killed by family/relative's big cat (again, parent's responsibility)
-two fatalities, adults, cats belonged to their close friend or family member
-TEN were owners/trainers/handlers/employees/circus performers = Voluntarily Accepted Occupational Hazard


20 dead, 12 of them were occupational/hobby hazard, (2 AZA zoo workers and 10 trainers/owners).

(AZA is a private accrediting groups always exempted from bans).


 The odds of being killed by a captive big cat is therefore extremely low. With the current US population being almost 302,000,000 with one death occurring every 13-14 seconds, this translates to approximately 2,440,000 total US deaths per year. With this in mind, the alleged threat of big cats posing a public safety issue seems ridiculous with the yearly odds of being killed by a captive big cat being one in 302,000,000 equaling to one fatal mauling per year.


You have a better chance of winning the lottery Jackpot (1 in 13,983,816, all six winning numbers selected) or even the elusive Mega Millions Lottery jackpot (1 in 175,711,536), than being killed by a captive large cat (1 in 302,000,000).  But you must visit someone with a large cat to get those odds.  Now compare that to deaths by privately kept escaped big cats….can’t find those numbers since nobody ever died as a result of privately owned captive exotic cat running loose.  Animal Rights groups claim to want more regulation and/or banning ownership of big cats in the name of public safety.  The odds just don’t add up.


Animal rights activists also claim that the ownership of the big cats is on the increase. With the current increase of the US population and the number of fatal big cat maulings remaining low, we can easily argue that the trend of fatal captive exotic cats maulings is therefore on the decrease. 


Keep in mind that most of those deaths/attacks where on handlers/owners, whom have accepted and know extremely well the risk (occupational hazard?).  Some deaths/attacks were to people who voluntarily went to see the tiger, most were family or friends. 


According to news reports, big cats have contributed to the death of one member of the general public, teenager Haley Hildebrand. However, she went to the property voluntarily to have her picture taken with the animal.  Exhibitor himself broke the federal rules regarding public contact with big cats and has been shut down since.

Still, where are the escaped big cats killing people?  More people have died from a runaway NASCAR vehicle than a runaway (escaped) big cat.  Shouldn’t we ban racecars?


According to Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2001 killed 37,862 people, of which 4,901 were pedestrians.


Also, wild tigers kill on average 40-60 people per year, even though estimates suggest there are easily more than 5 times as many captive US tigers that the entire wild population.


Even though there is no recorded fatal mauling attributed to the captive mountain lions, there is an increase in fatal wild cougar maulings in the USA, but we don’t see the AR groups supporting population control of these animals to save human lives, just the opposite. These organizations oppose any form of animal hunting, even for overpopulation control.


Assuming responsible exotic animal owners with proper caging, a perimeter fence to keep the animals in and the curious public out and to avoid easy trespassing, the best  method to avoid being killed by a captive big cat is to simply avoid the properties where they are being kept. Can you do that with the rest of your daily activities outlined at the end of this article?

Your lifetime Odds of Dying by a captive big cats are 1-in-4,000,000.

If our government and the AR groups really care about saving human lives, they should concentrate on the tables below.


Table 1- Lifetime odds and Number of deaths in 2003


TOTAL NUMBERS AND ODDS OF AN ACCIDENTAL DEATH IN THE USA BY CAUSE OF INJURY in 2003 – comparing human fatalities caused by captive exotic and wild animals (average up to year 2006) to deaths caused in the course of a normal daily routine in every day life in 2003.
REXANO only used fatalities numbers since all deaths are reported and there is only one degree of death. Injuries in all walks of life range from life threatening to simple Band-Aid fix and many go unreported. The average life expectancy of 77 years was used to calculate the lifetime odds.


Cause of death in 2003

Number of deaths per year

One-year odds

Lifetime odds

Captive non-human primate




Captive bear


1 in 2,416,000,000

1 in 32,000,000

Captive elephant




Captive big/exotic cat




Captive reptile




Fireworks discharge




Contact with hot tap-water








Bitten or struck by dog




Earthquake and other earth movements




Struck by or against another person








Contact with hornets, wasps and bees




Cataclysmic storm (****)




Animal rider or occupant of animal-drawn vehicle








Fall on and from ladder or scaffolding




Drowning and submersion while in or falling into swimming pool




Firearms discharge




Air and space transport accidents




Occupant of all-terrain or other off-road motor vehicle




Drowning and submersion while in or falling into natural water




Fall on and from stairs and steps




Exposure to smoke, fire and flames




Motorcycle riding




Assault by firearm




Motor vehicle accidents




Source: National Safety Council, National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Census, animal attack news reports

*In 1997 in Atlanta, Georgia, one Yerkes primate researcher supposedly died of herpes B after she was splashed in the eye with bodily fluids from a rhesus macaque; this can NOT be classified as animal ‘attack’, just like a nurse or doctor being accidentally infected with a blood from an AIDS patients can not be called a murder.

** Based on 16 year average 1990-2006 numbers

*** Based on 11 year average 1995-2006 numbers

 (****)Includes hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, dust storms and other cataclysmic storms.


Note: Exotic animal yearly and lifetime odds numbers were rounded due to their extremely large size for the ease of use and quoting purposes in the media and legislative sessions.

The figures in Table 2 and Table 3 are for US residents, and are based on 2001. Other odds, indicated with an asterisk (*) in Table 1 are based on long-term data.

Table 2 - LIFETIME Odds in USA in 2001

Cause of Death  in 2001

Lifetime Odds

Heart Disease 1-in-5
Cancer 1-in-7
Stroke 1-in-23
Accidental Injury 1-in-36
Motor Vehicle Accident* 1-in-100
Intentional Self-harm (suicide) 1-in-121
Falling Down 1-in-246
Assault by Firearm 1-in-325
Fire or Smoke 1-in-1,116
Natural Forces (heat, cold, storms, quakes, etc.) 1-in-3,357
Electrocution* 1-in-5,000
Drowning 1-in-8,942
Air Travel Accident* 1-in-20,000
Flood* (included also in Natural Forces above) 1-in-30,000
Legal Execution 1-in-58,618
Tornado* (included also in Natural Forces above) 1-in-60,000
Lightning Strike (included also in Natural Forces above) 1-in-83,930
Snake, Bee or other Venomous Bite or Sting* 1-in-100,000
Earthquake (included also in Natural Forces above) 1-in-131,890
Dog Attack 1-in-147,717
Asteroid Impact* 1-in-200,000**



Fireworks Discharge 1-in-615,488
Captive Reptile related fatalities in USA 1-in-2,681,245
Captive Exotic Cat related fatalities in USA 1-in-4,000,000
Captive Elephant related fatalities 1-in-5,000,000
Captive Bear related fatalities 1-in-32,174,949

Captive Non-human primate related fatalities


** Perhaps 1-in-500,000

SOURCES: National Center for Health Statistics, CDC; American Cancer Society; National Safety Council; International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; World Health Organization; USGS; Clark Chapman, SwRI; David Morrison, NASA; Michael Paine, Planetary Society Australian Volunteers

Table 3 -CAUSE OF DEATH IN  USA in 2001


Cause of death in 2001 Number
 All causes 2,416,425
  Dry land
   Motor Vehicle Traffic Crashes 37,862
   Fall on and from steps and stairs 1,462
   Fall from, out of, or through building or structure 580
   Slipping/stumbling  564
   Fall involving bed 516
   Accidental strangulation and suffocation in bed 456
   Fall on and from ladder 376
   Fall involving chair 181
   Fall involving wheelchair 157
   Skates/skis/skateboard/roller-skates 119
   Fall from tree 111
   Fall from cliff 68
   Contact with hot tap water 57
   Contact with powered lawn mower 45
   Dog attack 25
   Toys-children 0-14 25
   Pushing or collision with another person 22
   Contact with hot drinks and oils 6
 In the water
   Drowning while in natural water 845
   Drowning while in swimming pool 494
   Drowning following fall into natural water 209
   Drowning following fall into swimming pool 102
   Diving or jumping into water (excluding drowning) 68
   Shark attacks 3
 Captive Exotic Animals
   Captive reptiles in the USA 1.5*
   Captive big cats in the USA 1**
   Captive elephants 0.81**
   Captive bears 0.125**
   Captive non-human primates 0***


Source: CDC, FARS, CPSC and Wikipedia
* Based on 11 year average 1995-2006 numbers
** Based on 16 year average 1990-2006 numbers
*** In 1997/Atlanta, Georgia, one Yerkes primate researcher supposedly died of herpes B after she was splashed in the eye with bodily fluids from a rhesus macaque, but this can NOT be classified as animal ‘attack’, just like a nurse or doctor accidentally getting infected with a blood from an AIDS patients can not be called a murder.


Now, how scared should we be of captive privately owned big cats, and how scared should we be of everyday life?

Are you still worried about captive exotic animal attack?

Originally published 2005

Revised 10/2008

Copyright © Zuzana Kukol & Scott Shoemaker