I parked as close as I could, which — as usual — was at the Belk store closest to the Apple Store. I successfully threaded the competing displays of Halloween and Christmas (Honestly, does this not make anyone else sick?) and made my way upstairs so I could go directly from the Belk just around the corner to the Apple Store.
As I walked through the mall, I noticed a big crowd of people downstairs from me. There was a lot of murmuring, squealing, and flash bulbs. But I didn't have time to loiter.
I made it to the Apple Store just in time for my appointment. I gave The Shiny (my MacBook) to the nice, bearded young man (Is there some rule that male Apple Geniuses all have to have beards?) named Paul. I explained what was going on with the computer and he said he would plug the diagnostic tool into it and let me know if it was something easy, like the graphics card or a bad USB port. Something fixable.
The Apple store was crawling alive with people. Must be something about the end of the month or back to school or something. He told me it would take about an hour if I wanted to wait. Well, of course I want to wait. I can't leave The Shiny overnight.
The withdrawal would be unbearable. :)
I couldn't stand being in the Apple store with all those people, so I wandered back down toward where there are some couches to sit and read on my phone.
I heard that crowd down below again, and figured, "Eh, what the hell. I have time to at least take a look."
There was a large crowd of mostly adults, but some older kids, and frequent flashes from cameras and squeals of delight. "Gotta be puppies or kittens or something," I murmured. "Maybe the ASPCA is sponsoring adoptions."
Then I saw the bright pink sign. A big cartoon close-up of a smiling, toothless baby, its blue eyes practically luminous. Underneath, it said, "PHOTOGRAPH WITH A BABY - $15"
"What the . . . ?" I edged a little closer to see what was going on.
There was a large, fenced-off enclosure. Inside there was a floor that looked like Pergo or linoleum of some kind. The floor was scattered with assorted toys, all brightly colored. Also inside the cage were a bunch of babies.
Yes. Naked babies of all races and both genders. They all looked to be of crawling age, although quite a few of them weren't crawling. Some of them were piled together, dozing, in a big pile of stuffed animals. Others were crawling lazily around on the floor. Adults wearing pink shirts were on their knees cooing to the babies, shaking toys at them and trying to attract their attention.
Dumbfounded, I pushed in a little closer, and got called a very unpleasant name by an older lady whom I apparently offended. I was just in time to see a woman with a couple of older teenagers point at a little Asian baby girl hesitantly crawling away from one of the pink-shirted adults with toys toward the pile of dozing babies.
A man standing in the gate gestured to the baby the woman had pointed at and raised his eyebrows. "That one?"
"Yes!" the woman exclaimed, bouncing on her toes. The man turned away and I heard her say to her two children, "Oh, isn't she just the most adorable little thing?" The boy rolled his eyes.
The man went over to the baby girl and unceremoniously picked her up. She started crying, but the guy held her under her arms, bouncing her up and down, and blowing in her face until she grimaced toothlessly.
"I don't want that one if she's going to be crying," said the woman with the two kids. She was frowning and both of her kids were starting to complain.
"Mom, what if she spits up?" one of them asked.
"Hush," she said. "These people know what they're doing, honey."
The man inside the cage must have overheard her. He smiled. "Don't worry, ma'am. I'm resetting her, now. She'll be ready for your picture."
I looked at the baby girl more closely. I could see her ribs, and it was clear from her pallor that she wasn't healthy. Snot ran out of her nose, and from the look of it, she was either drugged or so sleepy that her eyes were barely open, and her head lolled.
Meanwhile, other people were pointing at other babies. Some of them were waked from a sound sleep and, if they cried, given the same treatment as the little Asian girl. A couple were slapped on their bare buttocks or on the face to wake them up.
At one end of the cage was a mock-up of an idealized nursery. Rocking chair, toys, building blocks — it looked like a perfect baby's perfect room, right out of a movie set.
The woman and her two teenagers were led into that end of the cage and the teenage girl sat in the rocking chair, first.
"How do you want her?" asked the man, still holding the feebly protesting baby girl.
"Ew. I don't want her all naked. Can you put a dress on her, maybe? Or a bonnet? Her hair is ugly."
Her hair was, indeed, ugly. Matted to her skin and patchy.
I watched while the man expertly draped a too-large "dickie" of a bright pink, frilly dress around the squirming baby, and then tied a bonnet over her hair. It looked to me like he tied it too tight.
He roughly wiped the snot from the baby's face with a towel of questionable cleanliness and handed the baby to the girl, who held her awkwardly under the arms with both hands, a look of terror in her eyes.
The man stepped up and said, "No, like this." And he showed her how to hold the baby on her lap so that her face was toward the camera. "Do you want a bottle, or just go like this?"
"Like this," the girl said firmly.
The baby's head lolled and I could tell even from where I was that she was sleepy. The man grabbed her roughly and bounced her until she opened her eyes and blearily looked back at him. He then handed her back to the girl, arranged the dress and bonnet, and quickly stepped back to operate the camera.
Just a second before he snapped the photo, the teenager shrieked. "Ew! Oh, my God, mom! She peed on me!" The girl shoved the now-dripping baby away from her at arm's length.
The man sighed and came and took the crying baby. "Do you want me to get another one?" he asked.
The mother looked ready to spit nails. "No, we do not want another one!" She grabbed her daughter's hand and said, "Come on, Chelsea. Let's go get you cleaned up." She practically dragged the girl from the cage, followed by her younger brother.
The guy inside the cage ripped the dress dickie off the baby, pulled off the bonnet, and tossed the sodden pair into a bin. He handed the now wailing baby to another man, who held her up by one arm and sprayed her with a hose. I could smell the disinfectant from all the way across the cage. The baby was now wailing and crying loudly. I guess the water was cold.
I felt faint and ill. What the hell was going on, here? Was this even legal?
I elbowed my way back out of the crowd and worked my way around to the side where another employee of whatever this place was stood. He was wearing a pink shirt like all the others, complete with a grinning baby-head logo on the pocket.
"Excuse me," I said.
"You'll have to go to the end of the line, like everyone else, sir," he said without even looking up.
"No, I'm not in line. I just have a question."
He looked up at me, annoyance clear on his face. "Yeah?"
"Where are these children's mothers? I mean, are they — ?"
"It's all in the brochure." He shoved a glossy brochure at me. I backed out of the crowd and went to stand a few feet away near a support column and took a look at it.
"VAN DUREN FOSTER HOME" was emblazoned across the top in neon blue lettering. I quickly thumbed through it. Pictures of happy, grinning, fat babies being held and fed by what looked like older teens. Nothing like what was going on scant feet from me.
I started reading. They claimed to rescue homeless teens. They provide them sanctuary — a safe place to live, medical care, room, board, and clothing. Help them kick drug habits. Educate them. And any children born to them during their stay are taken to foster care, and also "displayed for public education and entertainment."
So that's what this was. I wondered if the parents of these babies even knew what was happening to their children. I felt sick to my stomach. I ripped the brochure in two and looked for a trash can. How on earth can they legally keep this up? Why aren't there laws?
"Sir?" I turned around to face the voice as someone tapped me on the shoulder. An older woman smiled at me, crows feet around kind, brown eyes. "You look like you could use this." She held out a cup of water.
I took it. My hand was shaking. "Thanks," I said, then took a sip.
She held out a hand and I took it. "My name is Tricia Phillips. We're here protesting." We shook hands and she gestured toward a small group of about seven people standing over to one side, carrying signs. And being ignored.
She led me over to her group. They all welcomed me warmly, then showed me pictures they had of the Van Duren foster home. Teenagers living in barbaric conditions, not much better than packing crates. Barely big enough to move around in. No heat or air conditioning. Mud everywhere. Open latrines swarming with buzzing flies. It looked like a third-world refugee camp. No trees or any kind of shade. The teens' eyes looked dull and lifeless in the photos. Haunted.
"Those were taken about a week ago," Ms. Phillips explained. "A couple of former employees of Van Duren smuggled the pictures out to us."
As I flipped through the pictures, I noticed that most of the girls were pregnant. I commented on it.
"Yes, well . . . where do you think these babies come from?"
I felt sick again. "They're breeding them?"
She nodded, compassion in her eyes. "Some of these poor children are related, but Van Duren doesn't even care. They encourage them do whatever they want. We suspect they're drugged most of the time and aren't even aware of what they're doing."
"Holy shit," I said. "Isn't this illegal?"
She smiled sadly. "Well, of course it is. There are all kinds of laws, but they're seldom enforced."
I couldn't take my eyes off the pictures of the pregnant teenagers. So young. "What happens when, when . . . ?" I choked on the bile in my throat.
"Turned back out onto the streets. The infants used in these awful mall things end up in foster homes or wards of the state or worse. There are child pornography rings that pay good money for children as young as eighteen months."
I'm going to stop here. At what point did you figure out I was writing fiction? Are you appalled? Disgusted? Infuriated? Do you want to call me terrible things for being sick enough to come up with something this disgusting?
Because guess what? Take out the human babies and the homeless teens being raised as breeding stock and substitute tigers, and it's all true.
You read that right. All true.
There are places that set up in malls that allow the public to pay to have pictures taken with tiger cubs. Cubs that are very young and need proper nutrition, enough sleep, and whose immune systems aren't strong, yet.
These poor, innocent creatures are bred ruthlessly by people who claim to be "rescues" who operate "sanctuaries" for big cats. They claim to be working with conservation efforts, and that the only way to raise money for their good work is to take these cubs around for public display.
They claim that the cubs enjoy it. That blowing in their face calms them down. That holding them dangling from under their front arms and bouncing them up and down "resets" them. (What does that even mean?) That constantly being poked, prodded, handled, and grabbed by dozens of people, day in and day out for weeks at a time isn't harmful to them. That bright lights and flash bulbs aren't harmful to their sensitive eyes. They claim that they're well fed. That's it's 100% safe for humans and the cubs.
That the exhibitor is doing this to "teach people" not to have exotic animals as pets.
And they tell people that the cats will go to good homes when they get too big for petting.
The reality is very different. They're kept in tiny cages, forced to breed constantly, and since white tigers are popular, they inbreed their stock to produce more of them. When they get too old, the cubs end up in roadside "zoos" where they are forced to lie on hot concrete in direct sun year round in a cage barely big enough to stand up or turn around in. Fed insufficiently and incorrectly. Given no shelter.
Often, they are killed for their fur and the body is cut up and sold illegally. There is good money to be made on the black market selling tiger parts, where they are prized for their supposedly magical properties. There are still countries in which the fur trade has no limits to the types of animals that can be used.
These cubs are torn from their mothers too early, causing distress to both the cubs and their mothers. They're not allowed to imprint naturally on their mothers, but instead imprint on their human captors. Babies of any species need lots of sleep, but these are not allowed to get enough. They are constantly poked and prodded to be kept awake. Tiger cubs want to explore instinctively. But when they try, they're restrained. They spend hours in small cages inside trucks being carted from place to place so people can have their pictures taken while petting or feeding them.
The cubs are constantly sick and often have diarrhea, which goes untreated, so the cubs are irritable and in pain from the constant wiping by their human captors. Those cute little "roars" are screams of pain.
I get apoplectic with rage over this. I've been trying to come up with a way to show how awful it is, and I finally came up with this. I hope it makes you think, next time you hear of one of these events. If you've ever been to one, stop. If you know people who do, show them this post. If a mall near you advertises such an event, contact the owners. Let them know what is really going on. Encourage them to pass.
And hopefully, everyone who reads this will follow this link to an article entitled "The Truth About Tiger Cub Petting Displays in Malls" from Big Cat Rescue, which is where I got most of the details for my little story above. No infringement is intended. Any mistakes in facts are mine, not theirs.
I'm not affiliated with BCR in any way other than that I contribute to them, and try to spread the word like I'm doing right now. I love big cats, and it makes me furious to hear how they're being mistreated. They're such beautiful, powerful, amazing animals, and yet . . . we treat them like garbage. But I believe it's mostly out of ignorance that we still permit this kind of thing to occur. We still want to believe the best of people, and when we're told that it's safe for the animals and that they're being taken care of, and all the money is for research and conservation, we want to believe it.
There is actually one part of the fictitious tale of human baby petting zoos that is complete fiction and is not based on the plight of these tiger cubs. There are few laws against this, or very few. There are laws, for instance, that regulate the ages at which these creatures can be exploited: 8 weeks to 12 weeks. Yet it is commonplace for these tiger petting zoos to ignore the regulations, because resources for enforcement are limited.
But there are bills in Congress to prevent any private ownership of several species of big cats. You can help get these laws passed. Contact your congressperson and representative.
Thank you for indulging me this far, and I do hope you'll keep this in mind for the future.
Thank you for reading.
Disclaimer: All names used are fictitious and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is unintentional. The names Belk® and Apple® are used to set up the framing story and are in no way affiliated or associated in any way with the kind of practice portrayed herein. As far as I know, there is no such place as Van Duren Foster Home, and the fictitious name was picked at random. If any such place exists, I apologize and will change the name. Big Cat Rescue does exist, and as stated, I am not affiliated with them in any way whatsoever. They had no prior knowledge of this post and were not consulted before publishing.