There are approximately 7,000 tigers in America, which is nearly double the estimated 3,800 that remain in the wild in the rest of the world. They were all born here, mostly products of unregulated, no-limit breeding outside the accredited Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) system. They are purposely crossbred (combinations of Bengal, Malaysian, Sumatran and/or Amur) and classified as “generic tigers,” which is why AZA zoos won’t take them. The demand for tiger cubs to supply pay-to-pet operations fuels this breeding. Unfortunately, the “useful” life of a cub is only 100 days, at which point it weighs 50 pounds, is too dangerous to pet, is dumped into the dealer system and winds up living in a substandard facility for 12 years, dying prematurely of neglect or abuse, or killed outright for its parts. There are thousands in roadside zoos in almost every state. Enter Tigers in America, founded in 2011 by Animal Grantmakers’ current treasurer, Bill Nimmo, and his wife, Kizmin (Kiz) Reeves.
“Tigers were not part of our original retirement plan,” said Nimmo, whose career included positions at Vandenberg Air Force Base as an aerospace engineer, the New York Stock Exchange as a computer expert developing the National Market System, and Smith Barney as a managing director. Nimmo was born in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, raised on Long Island, and attended Manhattan College for Math and Engineering and St. John’s University’s graduate business school.
Nimmo and Reeves developed an affinity for tigers in 1985 after visiting a couple who had tigers on their property in southern New Jersey. They also supported programs for wild tiger populations at risk due to poaching and habitat loss, but were unaware of the American tiger problem of overpopulation and abuse that is largely invisible to the general public.
Work assignments took Nimmo and Reeves overseas, and they lost touch with the New Jersey tigers for 15 years. “Then one day in 2011, out of the blue, we received a call from New Jersey. The couple wanted to sell their property,” they said. When Nimmo inquired about the tigers, the response was, ‘’They were all confiscated, shipped to Texas and are probably all dead.”
Sensing they hadn’t been given the full story, Nimmo began calling animal protection organizations and found out that the tigers were sent to the Wild Animal Orphanage (WAO) in San Antonio, Texas. “The owner of WAO had left, and it was in its second year of bankruptcy. Many of the animals were relocated, but there were some primates and a group of tigers remaining that nobody wanted,” said Reeves. “We were also told that if anyone would know what was going on out there, it would be Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Sanctuary in Tampa.” Because of the turmoil surrounding the WAO bankruptcy, Nimmo thought it best to have an in-person discussion and flew to Tampa. As Baskin was showing Nimmo around her sanctuary in a golf cart, she suddenly stopped, turned to Nimmo and asked, “Why are you really here?” He pulled out a list of names of the New Jersey tigers and asked Baskin, “Can you tell me if any of these cats are at WAO?” “Welcome to the world of exotic animal dealing,” she replied. “Names are not really meaningful, there are no identification requirements, or chips or paperwork,” she went on. “The animals are considered commodities and traded as such, but if your wife has pictures of the cubs you knew in New Jersey, we can try.”
Baskin immediately contacted Big Cat Rescue’s president, Jamie Veronica, who happened to be en route to Tampa and wasn’t far from Texas at the time; Baskin had Veronica stop at WAO to take pictures of the remaining tigers. Reeves remembers, “Once Jamie got home, she and I spent the next three weeks comparing my 15-year-old cub pictures with the pictures she had just taken, looking for a match. Every tiger has a unique stripe pattern and, after many hours of staring at the pictures one by one, we began to get matches. And after two weeks, we had direct hits on six (two sets of three cubs) and a possible on another.” They were the New Jersey tigers. Considered most difficult to handle and least likely to be placed, they had been crowded together in a barren enclosure at the back of the facility at WAO. See how Veronica matched the stripes.
Nimmo went to San Antonio, and conversations with the bankruptcy judge led to an agreement to release the tigers to Nimmo and Reeves for placement in sanctuaries. Baskin agreed to take three, and a sanctuary in North Carolina agreed to take the other four. “A strange and unique experience, finding tigers that we had known as cubs 15 years later, we returned to New York, went back to our day jobs and assumed that our tiger rescuing days were over,” Nimmo said with a chuckle. “And then the calls started to come in. ‘Are you the guys that got the cats out of Texas?’ Soon we were getting calls from all over the country – from Ohio, from Missouri, from Alabama – about tigers in bad places.”
Nimmo and Reeves soon learned there are no restrictions on the use of the word “sanctuary” in a corporate name. Thus, anyone can set up a company, acquire tax-exempt status and solicit donations as a tiger sanctuary, all the while breeding, advertising tigers for sale and making a profit. After their glimpse into the scale and magnitude of this business, they made it their mission to do something about it, and Tigers in America was born.