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A white tiger is resting in a cage with a red ball.

American Tiger

In worn-out Levi’s, Kizmin Reeves ’72 ignored the bracing Colorado cold. As the wind struck in sharp, punchy gusts, she leaned closer to the chain-link fence, talking quietly with 4-year-old Waldo, a tiger pacing at the cage’s edge.

He lifted his chin and chuffed, a rush of throaty air. Reassuring the 500-pound animal, she eyed the cramped dirt yard behind him that was his home. 

For now.

Not long ago, Reeves discovered the mysterious and largely unregulated world of privately owned tigers in the U.S. The rise in captive breeding and ramshackle roadside zoos tell of a sordid industry too abysmal—too dangerous—for her to turn a blind eye. Dragging this shadow world into the light, she and husband Bill Nimmo walked away from Wall Street careers to found Tigers in America, a nonprofit devoted to rescuing the magnificent, fierce—and, tragically, growing—American tiger population. 

The decrepit conditions in Colorado where young Waldo was housed sum it all up. Scattered behind him were a metal beer keg, two empty bowls, and some blowing trash. Even with an injured shoulder, he relentlessly paced, like an -agitated colonel. 

“A starving tiger is terrible to see,” says Reeves.

Stories like Waldo’s, although they sound rare, are becoming less so. According to the World Wildlife Fund, around 3,890 tigers are left in the wild—a drop of 97 percent over the last hundred years—living in 13 countries including India, Indonesia, and China. In the U.S., however, the estimated number of tigers kept in private captivity hovers around 7,000. Only about 400 are in accredited zoos, with the rest in roadside attractions, private menageries, or kept by backyard breeders. Seven states have no laws at all on owning wild animals. 

“There’s no way of knowing the true extent of the problem, since no single agency tracks who keeps tigers,” says Debbie Leahy, manager of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States. 

“Injuries are inevitable,” adds Reeves, “when you put inexperienced people into direct contact with wild, big cats.”

A Kansas man, for example, kept tigers and lions in his junkyard, housed in rickety cages. In 2009 when a friend agreed to help the owner at feeding time, one of the animals shredded his arm. 

Authorities arrived at the surreal scene and set in motion a series of events that are becoming more commonplace: a hurriedly placed call to a rescue organization; a pitiful, dangerous collection process; a new and daunting quest for proper shelter. 

It’s happening all over. In the Chicago suburb of Lockport in 2014, police arrested a man walking to a bar with a tiger cub on a six-foot leash. A New York City man kept a tiger named Ming in his apartment until it attacked him in 2003; he told doctors that his pit bull bit him, but police eventually discovered the tiger when neighbors complained. Last fall, a Texas woman was arrested for leaving her 14-year-old daughter in a house overrun with exotic animals, including three tigers, a fox, a skunk, and several monkeys. 

“We typically only learn about an unlicensed person keeping pet tigers when something bad happens—such as the Zanesville, Ohio, incident where a suicidal man released nearly 50 tigers, lions, and dangerous wild animals before killing himself,” says Leahy. “Tigers in America has taken on the very difficult, labor-intensive, and expensive work of rescuing tigers from miserable conditions and relocating them to reputable sanctuaries. Many, many tigers are much better off today thanks to their hard work.”


BEFORE HER WORK with tigers, Reeves designed computer systems and owned Partners & Crime, a Manhattan mystery-
themed bookstore. A lifelong bookworm and nature lover, she grew up in a log cabin in Florida, a self-proclaimed “river rat” who dug for fossils and was perpetually late for dinner. 

“I went to Swarthmore as the oldest of six kids. Financial assistance made it possible,” says Reeves, who majored in art history with a minor in zoology. “The zeitgeist and challenge of being around really bright people generated a thoughtful and discussion-oriented community where my ability to question authority developed significantly.” 

That came in handy on Wall Street, where she spent time on trading floors and was often the only woman there. 

“In the trading world, there’s a lot of adrenaline,” she says. “I saw Wall Street chew up and spit out a lot of people.”

What has become the defining mission of her and her husband’s lives began somewhat by chance in 2011 when a friend called to tell them about tigers in a bankrupt Texas facility. Longtime admirers of big cats, Reeves and Nimmo had visited the tigers as cubs in 1996 when a New Jersey woman owned them. Reeves had photographed the cubs, but she and the woman had lost touch. Now, no one was willing to take the tigers—large, agitated, slated for euthanasia. 

“Fifteen angry, aggressive tigers are not an asset in a bankruptcy proceeding,” Reeves says dryly. 

She and Nimmo began working to find the Texas tigers homes, all the while planning to settle back into retirement in New York City afterward. 

They started with a list of 130 sanctuaries, whittling it down to 30 that were reputable and placing the tigers in two of them, including a trio of siblings who were miraculously kept together. Among them was a fierce female named Amanda who bared teeth, charged fences, and generally menaced anyone on two feet—she became Reeves’s favorite. 

“She is so pure tiger,” she says. 

But no sooner had that problem been solved than new calls came in from Ohio, Missouri, Alabama, each one regarding tigers in precarious situations with nowhere to go and no one to help.  

“We didn’t know that retirement would be so hard—or so rewarding,” says Nimmo. “Fortunately, our careers and education made it possible.”

“I sort of look at it like the tigers found us,” says Reeves. In her gravelly voice, she describes the situation for tigers in the United States today: “A short word would be insanity.” 

Since 2011, Reeves and Nimmo’s efforts have changed and saved lives. Not only do they rescue and advocate for the animals, but Tigers in America is also working with Stanford University on mapping the tiger genome.


“Kiz and Bill are animal protection heroes,” says Carson Barylak, campaigns officer for International Fund for Animal Welfare. “They’re committed to rescuing big cats from inhumane private ownership situations and to advancing public policy to bring an end to irresponsible breeding, trade, and possession of these iconic animals.”  

“Iconic” is a perfect description. So are “beautiful” and “fearsome.”

In a group, tigers are called an ambush. Apex predators, they hunt alone but share their kill with offspring. A tiger is a watchful, silent hunter, able to crush the skull of a cow with one strike. They eat roughly 10 pounds of meat daily, can burst to speeds of up to 40 mph, and are strong swimmers. More whimsically, in captivity they seem to like to pee in wading pools … and on unwary visitors.

“Tigers don’t hold anything back,” says Reeves. It is one of the reasons she admires them. “If they are angry and they charge iron bars, they will break their teeth. They didn’t evolve to be afraid of anything, yet they are incredibly graceful and strong. They are very bright, and they’re great to watch when they are having fun.”

Immortalized in art, literature, and pop culture, the tiger’s rank is unrivaled. In T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion,” the poet wrote: “The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours.” William Blake’s “Tyger” was burning bright. The 17th century’s The Tiger Hunt by Peter Paul Rubens and the 19th century's Tiger in a Tropical Storm or Surprised! by Henri Roussseau (pictured here) illuminate the tiger’s ferocity and power. 

“All the myths are true,” Reeves says. “Tigers are mesmerizing, like a tractor beam.”  

Sadly, their allure hasn’t worked in their favor: Not only is there a lucrative global market for their body parts for trophies and for use in traditional Asian medicine, but inbreeding among captive tigers has contributed to a host of medical problems. Poor understanding of cubs’ nutritional needs by ignorant or negligent breeders can lead to completely avoidable metabolic bone disease.

But when faced with any sprawling and complicated dilemma, Reeves is steely, tenacious. “I can trace a trait back to Swarthmore that still applies to what I’m doing today,” she says, “which is asking, ‘What will it take to solve this problem and how will you do that?’” 


THOSE SKILLS HELPED during the tiger-breeding facility shutdown in Colorado where Waldo lived. Tigers in America partnered with Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, an Arkansas sanctuary, to provide as much on-site care and medical assistance as possible and to relocate all the tigers.  

Reeves quickly sized up a wide range of injuries and neglect—three white cubs had been pulled from their mother at just a few days old, unable to stand or walk. 

“Their eyes were not even open,” she says. X-rays showed their bones were almost transparent and studded with tiny fractures from poor nutrition. 

Wearing a bomber jacket and hoodie, Reeves checked that her cellphone was charged and made sure there was extra rope in case a cage came loose. Among the tools on hand: a pack of tie-wires, used to help fasten visual barriers between rolling cages to prevent fights between neighbors. The volunteers, including veterinarians and drivers, were ready to rehearse their roles in moving the menagerie. 

In the kitchen of a small house on the property, Reeves stood in front of a whiteboard. It was hours before the operation would start. Maps, including a spray of brightly colored sticky notes marking the location of every animal, were in place. When it came time to head to the pens, a certain quiet settled over the team. After all, their cargo was carnivorous, between 300 and 600 pounds, and very, very anxious. 

“I’ve met a couple of bat-shit-crazy tigers—usually the product of years of abuse—who wanted to kill every living thing they could get at, and they are very scary,” says Reeves. Sometimes during a transport load, if the cats are too scared or aggressive—“the same thing, really”—the vet will dart them and then administer wake-up drugs and liquids to flush their systems of the sedative and make sure they are alert before the trip. 

Reeves’s role spans from the complex to the mundane: “I may have to let a vet know that a tiger is seizing, or I could be making a food run for the drivers.” If things go smoothly, the highly organized rescues lack drama: The tigers step right into their rolling transport cages, make a nest in the straw, and go to sleep. Reeves helps out when needed, and stays out of the way when not. “Mainly,” she admits, “I’m trying not to do something stupid that could put a cat or a human in danger so the experts can do their stuff.” 


IN THE U.S., tigers can be purchased for as little as a few hundred dollars. Misguided consumers often buy cubs, failing to reflect on the inherent danger of possessing a wild animal and the significant size and cost of such an animal as it grows into adulthood, says Tony Eliseuson, senior staff attorney for Animal Legal Defense Fund. This means hundreds of tigers are abandoned annually. 

“Rescue organizations like Tigers in America are a crucial part of providing relief for animals who have been exploited,” says Eliseuson. “When tigers are released from substandard conditions or private ownership, they cannot be returned to the wild. Tigers in America works to identify and support legitimate sanctuaries that allow big cats a safe place to retire and perform natural behaviors in an expansive space.”

A major contributor to the U.S. tiger surplus is the practice of using tiger cubs for photo opportunities with the public, says the Humane Society’s Leahy. The cuteness fades as they grow—and then they’re typically discarded. In the wild, a tiger has cubs every three years. In the world of captive breeding, females sometimes have three litters a year and are bred until they are no longer able to bear live cubs, usually dying of mammary cancer. 

And so, the picture remains bleak—but that’s what keeps Reeves and Nimmo so committed. 

“You can’t just walk away knowing everything you know,” she says. 


BACK IN COLORADO, tigers gazed from behind dilapidated enclosures on 12 scrubby acres. Snow, an 18-year-old male, was in bad shape. He would be moved at night so he could be on the first transport out. White with a ribbon of steel-colored stripes around his thin tail, he seemed to sense the noise and movement blurring on the other side of his enclosure. A jutting stump poked out from his back-left side where, years ago, his leg had been crudely amputated. This left him with three legs to weakly power his once-muscular frame. His massive paws, declawed to render him less dangerous during performances, had never stopped causing him pain. 

Watching Snow simultaneously limp and pull his large body across the spare den caused Reeves to wince. It’s not only her compassion for the tigers that fuels her mission to save them. She’s angry, too. 

“They would sell the chicken for visitors to throw over the fence so they could watch him drag himself across the yard for food,” she says. 

Snow lived for only a few weeks after the transport. An X-ray of his spine showed it was so severely injured that euthanasia would be the most humane course. At his new home, finally receiving pain medication, Snow relaxed. His caretakers talked quietly with him throughout his last days, which could be described as peaceful. If an animal can convey gratitude with an expression of dignity, this is what Snow seemed to offer his rescuers. A slow eye blink. A chuff.

The colorado project was the largest tiger rescue in U.S. history. Sanctuaries took in 75 tigers as well as 25 other big cats including lions, leopards, and cougars. It took five months to complete. By the time the last tigers were delivered in February, 115 animals had been moved out of bleak, unsafe conditions to the safety of 15 sanctuaries nationwide, from Big Cat Rescue in Florida to Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in California. Some of the 40 trips took place in the dead of night and often through snowy passes. Tigers in America and their partner Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge had court orders, capital, experience, and help from a network of Tigers in America sanctuaries where tigers will spend the rest of their lives free from fear and the obligation to perform.


There are glimmers of hope. The three white cubs from Colorado grew quickly thanks to a new diet, medication, and room to run in Arkansas. This spring, they battled joyfully over a new pool, snuck tricky tail bites, and stealthily charged and tackled one another. Amanda, one of the first tigers rescued six years ago, still furious, delighted in butchering a stuffed St. Patrick’s Day toy. Waldo gained weight at PAWS, content in his new home with a new name, Morris.

For Reeves, proof that a tiger’s fate has brightened is a gift. A great thrill is watching them explore a safe place.

“When we actually see a tiger being released into its new home, that first step on grass,” says Reeves, smiling, “you can see the sense of wonder.” 

In April, Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge honored Reeves and Nimmo for their efforts. Violent weather—hailstorms, lightning, floods—marked the occasion, making the sanctuary look even more like an ark. 

With a break in the storm, Reeves was glad for a chance to stretch her legs and watch some of the animals she’d helped save. But later that day, a stream of new phone messages arrived. 

Reeves started to pack her bag for the flight home. 

At twilight the tigers moved through the wet grass like ghosts. 

Sleeping Tiger, Hidden Danger

When I was 15, one of my brothers and I visited our uncle in Venezuela, sputtering our way across the country in his gray Volkswagen. On a warm April morning, we stopped at a tumble-down drive-through zoo called El Safari in the northern state of Carabobo. There were a few signs warning visitors to keep windows up at all times. It was starting to get hot as we chugged along, sipping bottled Cokes and gazing at the animals, most of whom were listless, thin, and appeared to be dozing. We spotted a tiger under a tree, deep in sleep.

The heat was by now unbearable, and my Uncle Joe’s window was completely down. We all noted how far away the tiger looked. Then, like a cloudburst, it was suddenly alive and flying toward us. The speed at which the now clearly agitated animal moved from motionless to within inches of the tiny car was astounding.

Shrieks and howls erupted as my Uncle Joe slammed down the accelerator and rolled up his window in one frenetic act. I whipped around to see the tiger leaping, both front legs extended, into what felt like the back seat where I was squeezed and screaming. We escaped by flooring it through the dusty fields, marveling that we had come so close to certain death—or at least mauling—by tiger.

As it turns out, those odds could be on the rise. In the United States, a loose patchwork of laws regulating the ownership of exotic animals has fortified a growing population of tigers and other large and dangerous cats in American homes and pay-for-play “sanctuaries.” Tigers are sold on the internet, and in some cases given away for free. Some states have no laws to protect the tigers, the owners … or their unsuspecting neighbors.  

Recently I searched for the zoo online and found only a video. It shows a wobbily filmed tour of the abandoned El Safari Carabobo, now for sale. One spigot still yielded water, but most of the fences had fallen down. The stories of the animals who lived there, where they went when it closed, or how they died, remain a mystery.  




What is Animal Hoarding?

Wildlife hoarding is a rare type of hoarding and only beginning to be studied, says Jedidiah Siev, assistant professor of psychology at Swarthmore. “We don’t know a lot about wild animal hoarding and people hoard animals for a variety of reasons, but there are certain features that are common, including a delusional belief about their unique ability to understand or communicate with the animals and a need for control,” says Siev.



“People who do this are likely not to have insight into the extent of the problem.”

Animal hoarding, for unknown reasons, is also more prevalent in women, he says. Four key markers indicate pathological animal hoarding: obsessive attempts to accumulate animals, failure to provide minimally for their needs, inability to recognize the impact of this failure to provide, and denial of the problem.

Tigers in America

A photo gallery of many of the tigers and other large cats rescued by Tigers in America.