The Czech Tiger King

Tiger king

The US Netflix documentary series Tiger King was released in March 2020 just as most of us were entering Covid lockdown for the first time, and it kept many people happily glued to their TV screens in those first uncertain weeks. The show, with its eccentric characters and bizarre story, may have struck many Europeans as something that could only happen in America. The EU, with its strong rules and regulations, seemed like a world away – most of us, if asked, would probably assume that keeping a tiger as a pet in the EU is illegal. But the Czech Republic, an EU country since 2004, has a huge and roaring exotic animal trade, with a relatively large number of people keeping exotic animals as pets.

Radek was just two years old when his mother married his stepfather and he came face-to-face with his first wild animal. Actually, not just one – several.

“All kinds – from big cats like lions and pumas, and we also had a tiger for a while – and then also other animals like bears and a crocodile and kangaroos.”

Radek’s stepdad also got his introduction to imported species at a young age. His grandmother worked at Prague zoo when he was a child, and that was how he came into contact with the wild and wonderful world of exotic animals.

“He used to spend a lot of time there, like around the zoo, with the animals, and had friends who took care of the animals, like actual employees of the zoo, so I guess at the time when he was still a child, he thought, ok, when I grow up, I’m gonna have animals like these.”

As a result of these friends and contacts in the exotic animal trade, Radek’s stepdad was easily able to make this dream a reality when he got older, and as an adult he started keeping exotic animals at home; first in a cage outside the house, and later at a farmhouse about an hour away from Prague. Radek says he wasn’t very comfortable with the idea of the animals being caged, but they didn’t seem visibly distressed.

Paws on face | Photo: archive of Radek Zábranský

“Honestly, I wasn’t that happy about it – I kind of became conscious of them being locked up most of the time, and my stepdad didn’t really have that much time for them at the end. But I guess they could have lived in worse conditions.”

Despite the fact that the animals had a much smaller space to roam around in than they would have had in their natural habitats, somewhat remarkably, Radek’s stepfather did take them out for walks.

“He used to walk them on these iron leashes, like on chains – not that they would suffer or anything, it was just to use something that won’t break when you walk the animal. You can’t use a normal leash like for a dog.”

Occasionally, however, things did go wrong. One time a baby mountain lion escaped.

“There was even a report about it on the TV. They were looking for it all around the village and even in the fields and in the nearby forest and stuff. And then after a day or two somebody found it and brought it back home.”

But despite a few scratches and scrapes, no-one ever got seriously hurt. Radek says that the animals were surprisingly tame, which he explains by the fact that they were mostly raised by his family from birth.

“We got them from a very young age. Some we had our own to keep, but some we had only temporarily to basically raise, for them to get used to people, to be around people and to be nice to people, so they were just your friends, kind of. Of course, they had all these animalistic, wild instincts, but they were still kind of friendly.”

Dog and puma | Photo: archive of Radek Zábranský

For some, trading in exotic animals is a way of making money, but for Radek’s stepdad, it was a hobby – he enjoyed taking care of them and kept them until the end of the animals’ lives. However, in a few rare cases he sold them, for example, when a pair of pumas had cubs, which happened every year or two, or when an animal grew to be too big to handle.

“Some of the tigers, they can get pretty big you know – several hundreds of kilos – and when they don’t have the best nature, some of them are not that easy to tame and then they can be quite dangerous, so it was probably the better decision to give them to a real professional.”

Sadly, Radek’s stepfather passed away a few years ago, so Radek and his mother had to decide what would happen to the animals once he was gone. Using his stepfather’s vast network of contacts, they gave the animals away for free to what they deemed to be the best homes for them, an offer that the recipients were only too happy to accept given that exotic animals usually come with a hefty price tag attached.

But Radek’s stepfather was not just one lone eccentric guy – there are tens or hundreds of thousands of such people in the Czech Republic, as Pavla Říhová from the Institute for Environmental Studies at Charles University‘s Faculty of Science tells me.

“It’s a really large number – we can’t specify the number exactly, we only have an approximate idea. For species that are protected and in some way require permission, then it’s possible to find out either from veterinary reports, or in the case of species listed in the CITES treaty, from the Environment Ministry. And so from that, we know we have about 50,000 people who own CITES species which are subject to registration and are protected.

Photo: archive of Radek Zábranský

“But apart from that, we have a lot of exotic species which are not protected, and there we can’t even get a general idea. The numbers go up to hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions, but to count them would be extremely difficult.”

Compared even to other EU countries, this is a laughably high number, Říhová says.

“If we compare it with other countries, in the EU we are quite unique – we have one of the biggest numbers of people keeping exotic animals as pets and of exotic animals kept as pets. In many countries, the numbers are far lower – in the hundreds, while we have tens or hundreds of thousands.”

When it comes to big cats specifically, the numbers are somewhat less daunting, but still perhaps surprising for a country of 10 million.

“We have around 200 tigers and 400 lions, and most of those are not in zoos but are in private ownership.”

Indeed, not far from our very own Czech Radio premises, there is a bar with live pumas roaming around. It has now become a private club which only members can enter, but pre-pandemic it was still perfectly possible to sit and drink a beer in the garden while pumas wandered above your head.

So how did this unusual situation come about? To understand the origins of the practice of keeping exotic animals as pets in the Czech Republic, Říhová refers to the country’s history.

“We can explain it by the fact that the history of raising animals is relatively long in Czechia. In Communist times people couldn’t travel, and so they focussed on hobbies that were connected with their homes and gardens, like gardening or breeding animals, and that was like a kind of substitute for travelling.

Puma and dog | Photo: archive of Radek Zábranský

“So I think that is one explanation for why animal breeding is so extensive here in the Czech Republic. And in many countries, breeding certain exotic species, like big cats or primates, is forbidden, while here it isn’t.”

Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands have adopted a so-called “Positive List” – a list of species allowed as pets, with all other species banned. However, the Czech Republic has only a negative list – a list of species not allowed to be kept as pets. This allows a lot of wiggle room for people with an interest in keeping exotic animals as pets to do so legally.

In general, the keeping, breeding and selling of exotic animals is a surprisingly unregulated business, but the animals are afforded some protection under the law, as Říhová lays out.

“The laws against animal abuse were amended recently, due to the substantial chaos in the illegal animal trade, including abuse and killing of animals. So stricter rules came in for certain groups of animals, like big cats and primates. Owners now have to fulfil a number of requirements – they have to take a course, have adequately-sized living quarters for the animal, it’s no longer allowed to pet young cubs, which was a pretty popular activity in the past.”

As of the start of this year, new rules have also been introduced, restricting the breeding, keeping and selling of certain invasive non-native species which can be found on the EU list of Invasive Alien Species of Union concern (otherwise known as the Union list). It is now illegal to introduce or release these species ‘into the wild’ in the Czech Republic, import or transport them within the EU, sell them on the open market, or to breed or keep them as pets.

Jan Šíma, director of the Department for Species Protection and Implementation of International Obligations from the Ministry of Environmental Affairs, explains.

“Within the EU, there has been a ban on importing animals from this list to the EU since 2015, as well as selling, breeding, or keeping them. After many years of discussion, the Czech Republic has, as of this year, introduced concrete rules according to the European regulations. One of the conditions is that animals from the list which are kept or bred as pets have to be registered.”

Photo: archive of Radek Zábranský

Owners are required to register animals on the so-called Union list that they hold for non-commercial purposes by the end of 2022 at the latest. A new online registration form has been launched for this purpose. After registration, owners receive a certificate with a unique registration number, which proves that they are keeping animals in accordance with the European Invasive Species Regulation, and they will not be subject to the ban, allowing them to keep the animal until the end of its natural life. At the beginning of 2023, entry into the register will be closed for species on the list, and further keeping or breeding of them will constitute a violation of the law.

However, it is still the responsibility of the owner to make sure the animals don’t escape and to prevent them from reproducing. Escaped animals can reproduce and create viable populations relatively quickly, threatening native species and the ecosystem. For example, a single female marbled crayfish was enough to create a large population of crayfish which decimated local populations by transmitting crayfish plague, the Environment Ministry said in a press release.

The Union list currently consists of 36 plant and 30 animal species, including eight species of invertebrates, four fish species, five bird, eleven mammal, and two amphibian or reptile species. The mammals include three species of squirrel, the racoon dog, the small Asian mongoose, the coypu, the coatimundi, the racoon, the Siberian chipmunk, and a species of deer native to East Asia.

Jan Šíma explains why these species in particular were chosen.

“All these species threaten the native flora and fauna of the Czech Republic and Europe, and for that reason it’s necessary to regulate them.”

However, big cats, which are somewhat easier to spot and catch if they escape than reptiles or birds, and which reproduce much more slowly than crayfish, are noticeably absent from the list. So for now, the Czech tiger kings can continue their controversial hobby with impunity.