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Animal Attack

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    Lions and Tigers Are Affordable Now; Once Rare Pets Become Costly Menace

June 30, 2000


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 the 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 handle them.

Classified ads in the El Paso Times recently listed a leopard for sale for $400 that would "bring the wild into your home." Animal Finders Guide, an exotic-pet newsletter, lists big cats of nearly every species for sale. Online 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. As 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 potentially dangerous animals taking up residence in Middle American households. Macaques, 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 say 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 danger. "The best part is being able to add numbers to an endangered species," he 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" in 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. "Try finding a golden retriever for that cheap," he adds. Lion cubs, currently less 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, and 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 a 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 in a 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, a Houston dealer known as "Tiger Joe," says the Agriculture Department had "no authority" to issue its warning. It's unfair to put regulatory shackles 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. He 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.

Copyright © 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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