by Jim Sanderson

Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation

Ironically—and sadly—some wildlife legislation can do more harm than good when it comes to saving endangered species. Take, for instance, the plight of the ocelot, which is the most common spotted cat in the Americas. On the Red List of globally threatened species prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, ocelots rank as animals of least concern, meaning they are doing fairly well compared to other small cats. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a branch of the Department of the Interior, on the other hand, considers ocelots endangered, because their range is now expanding into the United States. The USFWS has consequently proposed spending millions of dollars on recovery programs for them, but that money is desperately needed elsewhere for truly endangered species.

The reason the USFWS considers ocelots endangered is that the agency gives greater weight to political boundaries than numerical realities. Ocelots live in greatest numbers in Argentina and through South America and Mexico, but a few of these beautiful cats have established territories in the southern United States. As soon as an ocelot steps into U.S. territory, it is endangered because, numerically, in the United States, it is one of the rarest small cats. By comparison, Andean cats rank at the top of the Red List of endangered species, with an estimated total population of only 2,200 individuals. Few funds, however, are allocated for securing its future.

Tigers face a similar dilemma. The world’s tiger population has shrunk to less than 3,200 animals, fewer than the number of students at a typical high school football game. There is adequate money to save these beautiful tigers and other rare cats, but funds are misallocated due to faulty calculations of boundaries and numbers.

There is also a misimpression fostered by some people in America’s zoos that visitors want to see only big animals and aren’t interested in smaller ones.

There is some truth to that. No one comes into a zoo saying I want to see the flat-headed cats, primarily because they have no idea what a flat-headed cat is. These are small cats from Borneo and other parts of Southeast Asia that eat fish and frogs. Fully grown, a flat-headed cat will weigh no more than five pounds. Because of the bias against small cats, people never get to see them, so it’s a catch-22 situation.

To make the point a little clearer, there are more than seventy species of lemurs in Madagascar, and there are nearly three hundred kinds of primates around the world. But when you go to a zoo, what do you see? Big primates: chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, not tiny nocturnal lemurs or South American tamarins. Zoos generally don’t bother with these smaller species, which would not be quite so bad, except for the effort by some zoo officials to prohibit private facilities from having them, either.

Why are there such strident measures to inhibit private zoos from displaying the animals they want to display? One reason is finances. A small group of people within the zoo world decide which animals ought to be preserved, and, given the limitation of funding available, this is a justifiable exercise. But because private facilities absorb a percentage of paying visitors, this group sometimes attempts to block the private facilities from maintaining species other than the ones they have approved. This strategy puts pressure on private facilities to close.

And that, to my way of thinking, is a big mistake. Most private facilities are not run like a nine-to-five office. They are run by visionaries who dedicate their lives round the clock to preserving species the mainstream zoos overlook or reject. Obviously, there are exceptions: private collections held by people who are inadequately trained or improperly motivated. But it would be tragic to overlook the good done by well-run private facilities.

Let me offer an example of the extraordinary work private facilities are doing: A friend of mine, Dale Anderson, runs the Sierra Endangered Cat Haven, a private facility open to the public in Dunlop, California. He has an outreach program that goes into schools and shows kids what these beautiful animals look like and how they live. That program has motivated school groups to start their own fund-raising to help save endangered cats.

Another example: Rob and Barbara Dicely run the Wildcat Education and Conservation Fund, a private facility in Northern California, where they do programs for community groups. They bring live cats to their shows, and the reaction is incredible: People run to see them, especially when the show includes animals not available in zoos, such as a Geoffroy’s cat. This rare cat usually weighs no more than five or six pounds. Its fur has numerous black spots, and there are dark bands on the cheeks and across the top of the head and neck. It is a gorgeous little cat, and when Rob and Barbara bring it out, people gasp, I can’t believe that’s an adult! Incredible! And out come the donations to help preserve Geoffroy’s cats in the wild.

I’ve worked in an Indian village in southern Guyana where there are no cars and no electricity. What they do have is tapirs—amazing-looking animals shaped something like a pig with a short prehensile nose—which are said to have left North America for South America around three million years ago. When I was in Guyana, the kids had adopted an orphaned baby tapir as a playmate. They had another friend, too: a capybara. Capybaras, weighing around 150 pounds, are the world’s largest rodents. So, here were these people living a native lifestyle and interacting with these extraordinary animals. Elsewhere, tapirs are on the verge of extinction, but here they are flourishing and in abundance.

In our sophisticated Western culture, we have removed ourselves from that kind of natural life, and in my opinion it is a tragic spiritual loss. We are removed from nature on every level and in everything we do. We’re going 180 degrees in the wrong direction.

Legislation is often to blame, not because legislators are bad people but because they often act on partial or misleading information and are unfamiliar with the total picture. The signature law in this regard is U.S. Code 16, Chapter 30: the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. The act says that the Department of the Interior will manage horses and burros as part of the nation’s natural ecosystem.

Yet neither horses nor burros are native to the United States. In the 1800s, Spanish missionaries on horses rode into the Americas with burros in tow. The missionaries used the burros as pack animals, hauling ore and carrying supplies to desolate mining camps. When the mines shut down, the burros and horses were turned loose, and they have survived on the range as a genetic and historic remnant of the Old West. Because they have no natural predators, the population continues to explode and damage rangelands, especially in Nevada; I’m from the Southwest and have seen this dilemma firsthand.

So, what do the regulating agencies do? They pass an act that forbids burros from being sold, which obliges the government agencies to round them up, keep them in corrals, and spend more money managing them in captivity than they would have spent leaving them in the wild.

The solution to managing the wild horse and burro populations—like the solution to many of our wildlife dilemmas—is to repeal misguided laws. But that won’t happen, in large measure because some animal- rights advocates and some horse lovers won’t let it happen. Members of Congress are not biologists: They are politicians, and they note which way the wind is blowing. Yet, with the right education from informed scientists, they could solve a greater number of problems while spending less money.

The misunderstanding is not limited to politicians. People generally are uneducated about wildlife. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked whether pandas are found in Panama, but it’s scary. This is why my heroes are people like Dale Anderson, Bhagavan Antle, and many others who care about cats in captivity and have facilities where people can go to learn about them. I wish there were ten thousand like them: wildlife educators who are out there opening people’s eyes to the more complex issues surrounding wildlife legislation.