LOCATION — Latest attack
June 30, 2000
Lions and Tigers Are Affordable Now;
Once Rare Pets Become Costly Menace
By TED BOEHM
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
HOUSTON -- Neither spouse in the divorce wanted custody of the pet
mountain lion. So when the couple moved out of their house, they left the
animal chained to a tree in the back yard.
Neighbors alerted authorities, and eventually the cat was carted off to
local animal shelter, to be penned in with stray mutts.
Big cats -- as in lions and tigers and leopards -- are becoming a big
problem in pockets across the U.S. Ten years ago, one of these beasts
would have fetched thousands of dollars in a market dominated by a small
number of established dealers and high-end buyers. Now, as prices have
dropped to house-pet levels, a new crop of sellers and buyers have
emerged, eager to exploit the beasts' exotic allure but ill-prepared to
Classified ads in the El Paso Times recently listed a leopard for sale
$400 that would "bring the wild into your home." Animal Finders Guide,
exotic-pet newsletter, lists big cats of nearly every species for sale.
classified ads have made these animals something of an impulse purchase.
The government doesn't keep count of the big-cat population in the U.S.
The Roar Foundation, an Acton, Calif., animal-rights group, estimates that
pet tigers in the U.S. number about 7,000 -- roughly equal to the number
living in the wild world-wide. Ownership appears to be most prevalent in
the South, especially Texas, but big cats also have fans in the Midwest:
Police in Michigan say drug dealers buy them for use as "watch cats."
Most owners fall in love with big cats when the beasts are playful cubs.
they get bigger, "people either can't afford them or can't physically handle
them anymore," says Sue Neil of the Houston chapter of the Society for
the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Declawing the cats, a safety
precaution commonly taken, only makes them more aggressive, critics of
big-cat ownership say.
One result is that abandoned
big cats are becoming a
significant burden at some
local animal shelters.
Houston's SPCA recently
began a $250,000
renovation to upgrade its
shelter to handle them.
Exotic cats aren't the only
animals taking up residence
in Middle American
wallabies, and potbellied
pigs also are being drafted
as domestic companions.
The U.S. Agriculture Department focused on felines in a February warning,
which discouraged all but "qualified, trained professionals" from owning
large exotic cats. Even when the cats are "only playing," the department
noted, they can kill.
In March, a four-year-old in Longview, Texas, had his right arm torn off
by his uncle's Bengal tiger. The limb was later reattached, but doctors
the child will never regain its full use. Last June, a 10-year old in
Yorktown, Texas, was killed by her stepfather's pair of Siberian tigers.
Experts say the frequency of such attacks is rising.
Fans of the big cats as pets say such episodes occur when a small number
of negligent owners let children get too close to the animals. Curtis Dugan,
a 30-year-old tire-factory worker from Madill, Okla., used to breed and
sell tigers and still owns three of them. He says he hasn't ever felt in
"The best part is being able to add numbers to an endangered species,"
says. "It's not often you get to help save an animal that might disappear."
Wild tigers are endangered, but tigers in captivity are "bred like beagles"
the U.S., says Alan Green, an exotic-animals expert at the Center for
Public Integrity, a nonprofit watchdog group based in Washington. Mr.
Green says a tiger cub sold for $350 at a Missouri auction last spring.
finding a golden retriever for that cheap," he adds. Lion cubs, currently
popular than tigers, can be purchased for much less.
But caring for them is expensive. Lana Sweatt says she spent $15,000 to
build a pen for a pair of leopards and a cougar she and her husband
owned when he was stationed at the Army base in Fort Riley, Kan. They
spent $175 a week on food for the cats, and say medical care was both
hard to find and expensive. When the Army transferred her husband in the
fall, Ms. Sweatt says she gave the cats away to a zoo in Austin, Texas,
a sanctuary near Tyler.
The exotic-cat trade once was the domain of a few dealers who sold to the
movie industry and other well-heeled clients. But dealers now are as likely
to be small-scale, cash-only operators. Some of them exhibit animals at
flea markets or from the backs of pickup trucks.
Greg Hayes, a Boulder, Colo., a veterinarian who raises big cats for the
entertainment industry, says many dealers "pass themselves off as
conservationists or educators, when they really don't know anything about
raising these animals."
The lack of regulation and safety standards in the big-cat trade is creating
public menace, animal-rights advocates say. In the absence of an outright
ban on the beasts as pets, activists say, the federal government should
require better training for owners. At present, breeders and dealers must
be licensed by the Agriculture Department, which conducts periodic
inspections of their facilities.
Still, the Agriculture Department has little real authority over the big-cat
trade. Federal laws don't prohibit ownership of the beasts. Other than
few states like Georgia and New Jersey that prohibit big cats as pets,
owners face few regulations.
Breeders and dealers bridle at calls for stiffer regulations. Joe Cruz,
Houston dealer known as "Tiger Joe," says the Agriculture Department
had "no authority" to issue its warning. It's unfair to put regulatory
on everyone to rein in irresponsible owners, he says. "Just because one
person is an idiot doesn't mean that everyone should be punished."
Enforcing local laws can be difficult. New Jersey authorities have been
trying for more than a year to shut down the Jackson Township compound
of Joan Byron-Marasek, who houses 25 Bengal tigers there. Officials
refused to renew her permit to exhibit the tigers, saying they didn't receive
proper care and weren't displayed to the public, and asked her to find
properly licensed facilities for them.
Ms. Byron-Marasek has promised to fight the decision in court. She has
until July 23 to file an appeal, according to her lawyer, Valter H. Must.
says she has raised tigers on her property for 25 years and never had
trouble renewing her license until last year, when police killed a tiger
roaming in the vicinity that they said belonged to her. Ms. Byron-Marasek
denied the beast was hers and said it belonged to a nearby amusement
park. She didn't respond to faxes seeking comment.
great books about animals:
Elephants : A Celebration of Majesty
Fate of the Elephant
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