When the animal rescuers caught up with him in the southern states in 2000, the white tiger was in a truly sorry state. The team from the wildlife sanctuary were immediately concerned by the big cat’s disturbing appearance. Indeed, even at first glance, it was clear to see that the two-year-old was severely inbred. Some of the team, however, believed that his problem was far more serious than that.
Kenny the white tiger evidently had had a rough start to life. He was born at a private breeding facility in Arkansas and for the first few years of his existence had lived in squalor and filth. His owner claimed that he intended to sell Kenny, but he couldn’t find a buyer owing to the tiger’s congenital deformities.
Then, after a couple of years of failing to sell the tiger off, Kenny’s owner felt enough was enough. He reached out to Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in 2000. Based in the Ozark Mountains city of Eureka Springs, AR, the charitable organization rescues exotic cats from all over the U.S. and provides them with sanctuary. The refuge, moreover, has a reputation across the country for being one of the leading big cat-care facilities and has space for 100 animals.
When Turpentine Creek staff arrived at the breeding facility where Kenny lived, though, what they saw shocked them. The young animal sported black and white fur and had the piercing blue eyes synonymous with white tigers. Kenny, however, looked very different to others of his stripe. You see, the tiger’s snout was foreshortened, his face was wide and flat, and his teeth stuck out at peculiar angles.
Clearly, then, Kenny’s unusual looks had dashed any chance of him being sold. And now, worried that the tiger’s irregularites may cause his rescuers concern, his owner had an explanation. “The gentleman that we rescued him from said [Kenny] would constantly run his face into the wall,” Emily McCormack, a keeper at Turpentine Creek, told animal interest website The Dodo in 2015. “But it was clear that that wasn’t the situation.”
Indeed, the specialists at Turpentine Creek were convinced Kenny’s deformities were the catastrophic results of generation after generation of inbreeding. Since white tigers are so rare, the gene pool is not very large. In fact, some big cat experts believe that all the examples of the animal alive today are descendants of one single white tiger.
According to Susan Bass, a spokesperson for the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Florida, the tiger in question was found in the wild in the 1950s. Apparently, the individual who discovered him as a cub was fascinated by the big cat’s unique coloring. The man subsequently snatched the natural variant from its family group of ordinary orange tigers and took the cub into captivity. The white tiger was then bred, kicking off successive generations of inbreeding to replicate the double-recessive gene which lends the animal its special coloring.
So while the popular myth would have it that these tigers are a separate species, they are actually normal tigers with pigment deficiencies. “White tigers are not a species, they’re not endangered, they’re not in the wild,” Bass stated. “There are so many misconceptions about white tigers.”
With all that in mind, then, it is highly likely that Kenny’s mom and dad were siblings. And he isn’t the only one of his kind to have been adversely affected by inbreeding. In fact, most members of the white tiger population face a series of serious health issues. And these ailments range from physical conditions to neurological problems.
Furthermore, according to Bass, most white tigers suffer from a squint, and if this isn’t evident then their optic nerves will be crossed. Cleft palates and bulging eyes are also commonplace deformities shared by the white tiger population. And lots of the animals suffer from immune deficiencies, too.
These issues – particularly the more serious ones – mean that most white tigers are incapable of enjoying long and healthy lives. “They don’t live as long [as other tigers],” Bass explained to The Dodo. “They have kidney problems, they have spine issues…”
Because of the of myriad issues that white tigers face, many breeders struggle to sell cubs on. “Usually they have so many health problems, they’re not pretty enough to be in a Las Vegas show,” Bass revealed. “To get that one perfect, pretty, white cub, it’s one out of 30.”
But even on the rare occasion that a white tiger cub is born healthy, they’re doomed never to see the wild and follow their true nature. You see, the animals’ white fur means that they would be unable to blend into their natural habitats. Their prey can therefore spot them with ease, meaning that white tigers would be useless as stalking predators.
Given the raw deal that white tigers have been effectively dealt by mankind, the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge wants to raise awareness of their plight. And with his unusual facial features, it didn’t take long for the press to pick up on Kenny’s story. However, some media commentators claimed that his biggest problem wasn’t inbreeding at all.
It was mistakenly and frustratingly reported that Kenny’s appearance was the result of Down syndrome. The condition is found in humans and causes learning difficulties and very particular physical anomalies. However, no veterinary expert had ever diagnosed the tiger with the condition.
In humans, Down syndrome is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21 in a baby’s cells. However, tigers only have 38 chromosomes per cell, compared to 46 in humans. And while a variant of the condition has been detected in mice, there is no scientific proof that tigers can have Down syndrome.
So with no real evidence to back up the Down syndrome claims, Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge stood by its hypothesis that Kenny’s unfortunate deformities were the direct result of inbreeding. And the organization could support their theory, too. Yes, they highlighted the fact that most of the tiger’s siblings were stillborn or died at a young age.
Furthermore, McCormack added that the lovable tiger appeared to have an average mental ability. Indeed, Kenny didn’t display signs of any learning disability associated with Down syndrome. And McCormack maintained that “[Kenny] acted like the rest of [the tigers].” She added, “He loved enrichment, he had a favorite toy, he ran around in his habitat, he ate grass – he just looked kind of silly.”
But sadly Kenny would meet the same fate as his brothers and sisters. You see, Kenny developed a melanoma, and in 2008 his life was cut tragically short. So while tigers in captivity live for an average of 20 to 26 years, Kenny died aged just ten. It is not clear, however, if the cancer was as a result of the animal’s inbreeding.
But while he may be gone, the white tiger is not yet forgotten. “Everybody loved Kenny,” Bass said. “He had a great personality. He loved all the keepers, loved all the animal care staff.” And so long as we remember Kenny’s story, there is hope that one day the cruelty of breeding white tigers will end.