The Kandiyohi County Fair comes around Willmar every August, with promises of food, livestock, and entertainment for all ages.
This year, they got their Facebook followers excited for the summer -- a concept so tantalizingly removed from what has been a snowy April -- with a sneak peek at one of their attractions. Look out, Willmar: They’ve got tigers.
It’s an exotic animal production, the post reads, both inspirational and educational. The exhibit features the majestic Bengal tiger, which, allegedly, serves a dual purpose in being fun to look at and making the public more informed on its threatened survival in the wild due to hunting and habitat loss. There are a few tigers from the production pictured in the post, sitting on their haunches and lying down like stately stone lions.
But that’s not what most people in the comments were talking about.
“LOOK AT HOW FAT THESE KITTIES ARE,” one post read.
“Chubby,” another agreed.
It’s true: The tigers in the pictures look pretty fat. There are networks of wrinkles where the legs bend and the flesh folds, and their bellies sag and billow depending on the tiger’s position. Before too long, the comments started to verge from delight to worry.
“These poor tigers look terrible,” one read.
Still, other commenters warned not to jump to conclusions. (Facebook is not full of tiger experts.) Maybe the tigers are fat, but whether they’re unhealthy is impossible for a layperson to know offhand.
Darrell Fostervold, the president of the Kandiyohi County Fair, says they absolutely aren’t.
“They’ve been in shows all over,” says Fostervold, who admits he’s not a tiger expert, either.
But there are people who have been worrying about these tigers for a long time -- like Susan Bass, a spokeswoman for Big Cat Rescue, one of the largest accredited big cat sanctuaries in the country.
“Those are really old pictures,” Bass said of the Facebook post. There’s no telling, sight unseen, what the tigers actually look like now, but she says they were definitely obese when those photos was taken. She saw this particular big cat show herself five years ago, and at the time, the small size of the cages and the tigers’ close proximity with each other had distressed her.
“Just imagine living your life in a tiny circus cage where you can’t turn around, much less get any exercise,” she says. “I was very upset about the whole thing.”
The organization showing the tigers is a traveling company called Bengal Tiger Encounter, run by the Frisco family, out of Illinois. Felicia Frisco, pictured in news clippings of past shows smiling while standing over a roaring, 650-pound white tiger, has been featured in stories about having a pet tiger cub named Will while she was growing up in Florida. The Frisco family has worked with circus animals for generations, and operates under a license granted by the USDA.
The Frisco family's company has run under several other names over the course of their tenure, Bass says, and is constantly getting pinged by animal rights groups like Big Cat Rescue and 911 Animal Abuse.
Every so often, Bass will get an email or a message from a Big Cat Rescue Facebook follower about a traveling tiger show, and without even seeing the same old photos, she can guess it’s about the Frisco family again. They’re on her radar constantly.
The problem with these traveling shows, Bass says, is they’re hard to regulate. It’s easy enough to get a USDA license, she says -- if you’ve got $40. And after that, there are only about 100 USDA inspectors looking into animal exhibitors nationwide, and only about 10 of them cover traveling shows.
“By the time the inspector gets the report, they’re gone,” she says.
Bass and Big Cat Rescue are also against the premise of showing wildcats in circuses and roadside zoos in the first place. Being kept in a small space and surrounded by people -- maybe even being prodded into doing the occasional cutesy trick -- isn’t comfortable for any big cat. Big Cat Rescue has even been trying to get Farmer’s Insurance to stop filming commercials featuring cougars for comedic effect.
“It’s not appropriate for cats, and it’s very stressful,” she says. Whether or not they’re too fat is one of the least of her worries.
Frisco says the picture Bass paints of her operation isn't accurate -- nor are the pictures of the tigers on their show's website. She says the tigers were pretty heavy at the time, but that's because they were pregnant, or were a short while before they were taken. She's been trying to get their agent to change the photos on the show's website for years.
In all of their years, she says, they've never gotten a USDA violation, and they're inspected pretty much everywhere they go.
"Traveling animal shows are regulated so much," she says.
Their tigers are born and raised together, she says, and they get along great, even if they're solitary in the wild. They've grown up around all kinds of different sights and smells. They do six to seven fairs a year, and the rest of the year, the tigers are on their own time.
These, Frisco said, are much more current photos of the tigers.