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Elisabeth Sanchez posted an online classified ad to find a new home for her kitty, Olivia, a routine event … except that Olivia is a three-year-old declawed cougar.
"She likes to suck my thumb and hug me," Sanchez, of Mission, Texas, wrote, but "my family is moving to a state where I can't have her anymore." The scenario has become increasingly common, animal experts say, as falling prices, lack of federal regulation of the exotic animal trade and Internet availability have sparked a boom in the big cat market.
For as little as a few hundred bucks – the price of a golden retriever – cat lovers can buy a tiger or lion cub on impulse. Beasts once used primarily in films, zoos and circus acts are now being hawked at auctions and flea markets. Problems arise when the frisky cubs grow into wild beasts with huge appetites and a penchant for pouncing. Consequently, abandoned lions and tigers are becoming a significant financial burden at some local shelters, many of which are ill equipped to handle big cats.
The Houston, Texas, chapter of the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for example, recently launched a $250,000 upgrade of its facility to house exotic felines. "These animals are predators and potential killers," said actress Tippi Hedren, who heads the Roar Foundation, a California-based animal rights group, and who currently houses 58 rescued cats on her preserve. "It's absurd to think of taking them home and keeping them in your backyard. It's cruel and unusual punishment."
7,500 Tigers In the U.S. Are Pets
Though the federal government keeps no statistics on the big cat population, Roar estimates that about 7,500 pet tigers live in U.S. homes, roughly the same number living in the wild worldwide. Other rare breeds – from Florida panthers to long-limbed, spotted servals – also have been cropping up in suburban backyards. A serval is a nocturnal African cat about the size of a bobcat, weighing up to 40 pounds.
Officials in Texas, Michigan and Yonkers, N.Y., have even confiscated lions and tigers used as guard animals for drug dealers, Hedren noted. Southern states, particularly Texas, appear to have the greatest concentration of big cat fans, but sales are up coast to coast. And so are mauling incidents, experts said.
"The more of these cats you have being handled by inexperienced people, there are bound to be more accidents," said cat expert Dr. Patrick Thomas, mammal curator for the Bronx Zoo/Wildlife Conservation Park. "With lions and tigers, you're talking adults that weigh 350 to 500 pounds, and they're extremely powerful. They're the top predators in their food chain."
Big Cats Have Caused Problems
In March, a 4-year-old in Longview, Texas, had his right arm reattached after his uncle's pet Bengal tiger tore it off. Another Texas child, a 10-year-old girl, died last June in Yorktown after being pounced by her stepfather's two Siberian tigers.
"My files on these types of attacks keeps growing," Hedren said. "One of our tigers bit a man in the head, and two of our servals bit little children." New Jersey police killed a tiger last year, after finding the animal roaming free in Jackson Township, near a private tiger compound. Owner Joan Byron-Marasek, who houses 25 Bengals, has denied owning the loose tiger and is fighting to regain her license to exhibit the animals.
Though New Jersey and several other states restrict or ban big cats as pets, there are no federal laws barring private ownership of the animals. Breeders and dealers must be licensed by the federal Agriculture Department, which periodically inspects their facilities, but activists warn greater oversight is needed to stem what they perceive as a growing public menace.
"A dog owner must have a license for his pet, but if someone has a tiger in his backyard or basement, no one is the wiser," noted Alan Green, author of Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species.
In March, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) appeared on Capitol Hill with celebrities Hedren, her daughter Melanie Griffith, Bo Derek and Kermit the Frog, to promote a bill requiring owners of large exotic mammals to show they're capable of keeping the animals safely and humanely before getting a license from the Agriculture Department. Lantos' spokeswoman said he hoped to propose the measure before the end of the current congressional session.
Big Cats Need Special Vet Care
As it stands, most private cat owners have no conception that the cats require special veterinary care, can transmit diseases like rabies and salmonella, and need dietary supplements as well as up to 10 pounds of meat per day, Dr. Thomas said.
Private breeders bristled at any further legislation, insisting the problems stemmed from a few negligent owners. "The way I see it, we're saving these animals from extinction," said Larry Munchrath, a Eustace, Texas, breeder who just sold two serval kittens for $1,500 each. "It's just a few irresponsible folks giving everyone a bad name. Sure, these animals are wild, but, hey, dogs weren't always domesticated."
Mike K., a Canadian lynx and bobcat breeder in Minnesota who didn't want his last name used "because I don't want problems with the animal rights people," blamed media hype for giving the cats a "bad rap." Mike's Web site pledges, "When raised properly, these cats are no different than a normal house cat… People have accused us of crossing our cats with dogs, because they are so affectionate!"
"I have a 10-year-old son, and he's been around the cats since he was a baby," said Mike, who charges $750-$1,200 per lynx. "They roughhouse and play together, and I've never had a problem. Of course I'd never leave them unsupervised." Like most exotic cats kept as pets, both Munchrath's and Mike K.'s cats are declawed, a measure viewed as cruel by animal rights activists.
"They can tear through a couch in a quick hurry," Mike K. conceded. "And if they're playing, well, people can get a little excited if they should accidentally claw someone."
Breeders Screen Buyers
The breeders insisted they routinely turned away buyers they felt were incapable of handling bottle-feedings during the cub's infancy, the explosive energy of a young cat, or the drain on the pocketbook for food and supplies. "If you're thinking of having this neat little kitten, then forget it," Mike K. said. "If you're not willing to put in the time and effort, go buy a poodle."
But experts warned that no amount of time or money could tame a wild cat. "These are magnificent animals to be looked at in awe," Hedren said. "They're not designed to be pets, to play cootchie-coo and give a tickle. Not a good idea."