White tiger exhibit stirs controversy; accord reached

PLYMOUTH - Late Tuesday, Marshall County Blueberry Festival officials and an avowed protestor may have reached an accord over the White Tiger Discovery, one of this year’s attractions at the annual Labor Day weekend festival.

A Plymouth native planned on attending the Blueberry Festival this year for a reason other than fun or family reunion.

Adam Pratt, currently living in Bloomington, told the Pilot News Tuesday that he planned to attend the Festival for a different reason - a cause he believes in. Pratt will be attempting to “educate” those in attendance about one of the exhibits this year, The White Tiger Discovery.

“I’m not with any group I’m just somebody who is concerned with the environment,” said Pratt by phone from his home. “I have connections and have worked with an exotic animal rescue facility here in Bloomington. I was born and raised in Plymouth, the Blueberry Festival is one of my favorite events and I’m concerned with them exploiting exotic animals.”
Pratt’s issue with the white tiger exhibit goes beyond exploitation of the animal, and had to do with the way it is bred.

“No white tiger is born naturally,” he said. “They can only be bred through inbreeding.”

He planned a protest at the festival to provide information on his argument.

“I was really not going to be there to hurt anybody’s Festival experience,” he said. “I just wanted people to have the right information.”

Pratt was not alone in his displeasure of the exhibit. Phone calls to the newspaper last week and numerous postings on the Blueberry Festival’s Facebook page from about a dozen people indicate that others had similar concerns.

Marc Cook, Senior Handler with the white tiger exhibit has a slightly different take on the issue.

“We’ve really come a long way since the 1950s,” he said. “The first white tiger was taken into captivity in India in 1951 and they were officially extinct from the wild in 1958. In India the myth of the white tiger is that God told man that one in every 10,000 tigers would be white to remind men that he still produced things of beauty.

“The fact is that in the early days there was inbreeding of the tigers but in the early 1960s the bloodline was broken up. Every white tiger does have a direct link to the first in captivity but Texas A&M published a study in May of this year that shows that DNA typing was clear of any bad bloodlines (such as inbreeding) that cause birth defects. In essence there is a clean slate for breeding the animals.”
Cook said that all animals at certified zoos and exhibits in the United States - including Potawatomi Park Zoo’s white tiger - are from this particular bloodline.

As far as exploiting the animals in captivity, Cook says that it is a trade off.

“The object of having these animals displayed is to use as a tool for conservation,” he said. “Yes, the white tiger has a ‘wow’ factor. The more money raised by exhibits in zoos and other certified shows makes more money available for those involved in preserving these animals.

“People say that by showing them we encourage others to want them as pets. Are they cool pets? No. I certainly wouldn’t want one as a pet. But studies show that people remember 90 percent of what they participate in. We’ve done studies that show people spend about 42 minutes at our exhibit. Our handlers are available to interact with everybody that comes through, answer any questions anybody might have and get them close to the animals. We hope that any child might come away with a greater interest in these animals and seek to preserve them.

“Honestly education is our whole purpose for the exhibit. I would be willing to debate anybody in a professional forum on these animals and how we handle them.”

For the Festival, Phil Martin, Blueberry Festival vice president says that they brought the exhibit after investigating its history.

“This exhibit was at the Wisconsin State Fair last week and 1.1 million people visited the tigers,” he said. “We’ve done every thing we could possibly do regarding the exhibit. We contacted the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) which is the governing body for exhibits of this kind and every thing about it is legal to the letter of the law.”

As of press time, Blueberry officials told the Pilot News that discussions had continued with Pratt and that an understanding had been reached.

It is unclear as to what arrangements had been made to satisfy Pratt’s concerns.

(This story was published in the Aug. 28 print and e-editions of the Pilot News.)