Thursday, January 14, 2016

Big cats pose with celebrities at The Black Jaguar-White Tiger Foundation. But is it safe? Read for the story.

Celebrities like Khloe Kardashian and Kate Walsh love this animal rescue foundation. But is it a good idea?

Want to share a room with a lion? Or a jaguar? Or a tiger or a leopard or a puma? Well it's possible, and apparently quite a few celebrities are … pouncing … on the opportunity.

The venue is The Black Jaguar-White Tiger Foundation, a "sanctuary" (some would argue otherwise) in Mexico that has taken in and cares for over 180 big cats. The idea is wonderful: According to founder Eduardo Serio, the foundation was founded after a trip Serio took to Monterrey, Mexico, in October 2013. He says his cousin called him in distress about a jaguar that was going to be sold to a group planning to sedate it and charge for pictures of it. So Serio stepped in and purchased the jaguar, Cielo, and saved it from a life of exploitation. He hasn't looked back. His foundation today has the stated goal of rescuing "Big Felines including Jaguars, Tigers, Leopards, Lynxes, Lions and Pumas from a life of abuse in circuses, zoos and illegal breeders."

But some have expressed concern for the animals' safety and well-being—as well as that of the people who visit them. Black Jaguar-White Tiger is not accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, in part because it allows totally untrained visitors to touch and interact with potentially dangerous predators. Crowding is also an issue: Currently the foundation has only eight acres of land for almost two hundred animals (plans for hundreds of more acres are "coming soon," but specifics are not clear). In all, it's a combination that has recently been called "a disaster waiting to happen."

Some even question Serio's motives. For someone who purports to rescue animals from exploitation, they argue, he certainly milks them for a lot of photos. They point out that the origins of some of his "angels," as he calls the cats, are not documented, and so we can't be sure what he is rescuing them from—or if he is rescuing them at all. The exact use of donation money is not totally clear. (Non-celebrities can visit the foundation in person if they sign up to donate $1,000 per month, indefinitely. $500 gets you a FaceTime with your sponsored cat.) Serio does not even make the exact location of the compound available to the public.

So yes, there are questions, and with them come detractors. But Serio does seem to be well-intentioned, preaching love, care, and respect. Pair that with beautiful beasts and you get a loyal and devoted following—to the tune of 4.3 million Instagram followers, 698,000 Facebook likers, and celebrity fans like Kendall Jenner, Khloe Kardashian, Kellan Lutz, and Kate Walsh. No serious injuries have been reported, and pictures and videos seem to paint a picture of animals behaving much like a family cat or dog:

A video posted by Black Jaguar-White Tiger (@blackjaguarwhitetiger) on

But, still, the whole thing is a bit mysterious. And while the pictures and videos of celebrities cuddling with tigers and petting lions are captivating, we're content to let them be the ones to actually, well, do it.

Chris Abell is the editorial producer at Travel+Leisure. You can follow him on Instagram at @buildingflavors.

Big cats pose with celebrities at The Black Jaguar-White Tiger Foundation. But is it safe? Read for the story.

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