"Pay for Play" Zoo Causes Stir With Local Non-Profit

By KOLR10 News

Published 03/18 2014 07:11PM

Updated 03/18 2014 07:16PM

BRANSON, Mo. -- A growing "pay for play" format at exotic animal habitats has a Christian County non-profit worried tiger cubs could be at risk.

"I liken it to someone taking their own baby and letting 75 people a day handle it," says Judy McGee, owner of the National Tiger Sanctuary in Saddlebrooke.

McGee says the hands-on interaction weakens a tiger's immune system and causes it to long for human interaction once it's grown.

"They're taking advantage of people's love for animals and making them feel like that's ok to do," says McGee.

According to the Department of Agriculture, there is a four-week window where humans can have hands on interaction with cubs, like at the Promised Land Zoo in Branson.

The USDA says that widow is when cubs are between 8 and 12 weeks old.

"We all love animals, all of us do, we just have different philosophies on how to handle the animals," says Promised Land Zoo owner, Jeffrey Sanders.

Sanders says each visitor is required to sanitize their hands before playing with the cubs, something visitors have always done since he opened last year.

"It helps them adapt to the situation at hand," says Sanders, referring to when cubs reach adulthood and are placed in a habitat for public viewing.

He says at the Promised Land Zoo each cub is also cared for by trained medical staff, and is transferred to Promised Land's larger sister site in Eagle Rock once they reach 12 weeks old.

"We believe that God created man, he created animals, and he gave us dominion over them," Sanders says, citing the Bible. “He goes onto say it means his organization is, ‘to love and care for them.’"

McGee also believes that tiger cubs should be loved and appreciated, but that the risk of disease or mental health issues doesn't warrant putting them in a petting zoo-type environment.

"Of course every child wants to hold a cub, every adult wants to hold a cub, but in reality what people need to know is they're are certain animals that shouldn't be held and touched, you should learn to appreciate them for what they are," says McGee.

What both parties do agree on is that the four-week window should be changed because it leads to unnecessary breeding to keep up with demand.

Sanders believes is should be extended, while McGee on the other hand believes it should be removed altogether.

McGee says cubs should get somewhere between 15 and 16 hours of sleep a day, and fears that doesn't happen when a cub is constantly being played with by children and adults.

Sanders says at the Promised Land Zoo each cub is exposed to roughly 15, 5 minute secessions a day, resulting in just over an hour of human interaction each day.

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