A Tiger’s Tale

In Texas, where you can own a pet tiger, the booming exotic animal trade has grim consequences.

White tiger at the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary

It was early afternoon on June 15, and McAllen police officer Frank Garcia thought he was witnessing a drug deal. He was watching three vehicles-two with Texas plates and a dark green Jeep Cherokee with Mexican plates-parked next to each other outside a McAllen Wal-Mart. Five people were hurriedly transferring small blue crates to the jeep. Garcia drove closer for a better look through his binoculars. As he approached, the group scattered, ducked into their vehicles, and peeled out.

Garcia followed them to another parking lot, this time outside a Mervyn’s department store. He flashed the squad car lights, got out of his vehicle, and told the group not to move.

That’s when he heard the yowling.

It was a high-pitched wail, like infants crying, coming from inside the Cherokee. Garcia peered inside the blue crates. There were no bundles of cocaine, no kilos of marijuana. Instead, he saw six tiny tiger cubs peering back at him. It turned out they were endangered Bengal tiger cubs (four white and two orange) bound for a private animal dealer in Mexico.

Garcia could do little. The tiger smugglers hadn’t committed a state crime. You might think it’s illegal to buy or sell an endangered tiger cub in Texas, but it isn’t. For $500, you can buy an orange Bengal tiger and tie it up in your yard, no questions asked (a white tiger will cost you $5,000). It’s all perfectly legal in Texas.

The exotic animal trade is a billion-dollar industry. Texas-which has almost no regulation of exotic animals-has always been a hotbed. The few laws Texas does have are rarely enforced. With such little oversight, animal experts and law enforcement officials say, the breeding and smuggling of exotic animals-tigers in particular-are booming in Texas. “It probably has the largest population of tigers in the country,” says Richard Farinato, a senior adviser with the Humane Society of the United States, “because there are a lot of animal breeders and a lot of animal dealers.”

It’s nearly impossible to know how many tigers and other exotic animals live in Texas because no state or federal agency tracks the number of animals in private ownership. Farinato can only guess at the number. Some animal experts estimate at least 3,000 tigers in the Lone Star State. That means more captive tigers live in Texas than prowl in the wild in India.

One thing is certain: With so many exotic animals, Texas is running out of zoos and sanctuaries that will take animals that are abandoned or seized in illegal smuggling rings (you can’t take tigers across the border without proper permits). The burgeoning tiger population has dangerous consequences for public safety-you could soon have a pet tiger living down the block-not to mention the health of animals forced to live in poor conditions.

Alejandro Rodriguez, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is in charge of prosecuting international animal smugglers along the border. He says the exotic animal seizures on the border were once almost entirely birds and reptiles from Mexico. In the last four years, the trade has reversed. Now it’s mostly tigers and exotic cats bred in the United States being smuggled into Mexico. Rodriguez says private individuals in Mexico who want a tiger are fueling the demand. Because owning and breeding tigers is legal, law enforcement often has no recourse.

The woman selling tiger cubs at the McAllen Wal-Mart was Michelle Ashton, co-owner of the Spring Hill Wildlife Ranch in Calvert. (She had twice before sold tiger cubs in the Rio Grande Valley, according to law enforcement officials.) If Ashton hadn’t refused to cooperate with McAllen police that day, she could have driven home a free woman. She hadn’t violated any state law. Instead, she locked herself in the cab of her truck. She was arrested and then charged with “interfering with the duties of a public servant.” That triggered a federal investigation by U.S. Fish and Wildlife into whether she held the proper permits to transport the endangered cubs across an international border. Ashton, released on $5,000 bail, is still waiting for her court date. The federal investigation is ongoing.

The more pressing issue is what to do with the tiger cubs. Where do you house six adorable tiger cubs that will soon grow into 500-pound predators who eat 10 to 20 pounds of meat each day?

When state and federal authorities seize exotic animals along the border, they often call Jerry Stones, facilities director at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville. Because of its proximity to the border, the Brownsville zoo has become a kind of repository for seized animals and plants. With the animal trade booming, Stones has been receiving a lot of calls lately from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Drug Enforcement Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and U.S. Customs asking him to please take an animal off their hands.

“It never stops,” says Stones, sitting behind his desk in a cramped office. He’s a self-described Nebraska farm boy from a “big” town of 6,000 people. He fell in love with the zoo business in his early 20s. In 1970 he left his job at the Omaha zoo to help run the brand new Gladys Porter Zoo, built and stocked with animals by Gladys Porter, an heiress to the J.C. Penney fortune. The 31-acre zoological and botanical park in downtown Brownsville has received everything from seized eastern gray kangaroos to rednecked wallabies to African lions (it currently has two). And six tigers. The influx of tigers has become overwhelming.

“I am about tigered out,” Stones says. “We have more than reached our tiger limit here at the Gladys Porter Zoo.” But he did find room for a certain set of six tiger cubs recently seized in McAllen.

Tiger cubs seized in a Mervyn's parking lot

It’s a gray June day in Brownsville. The sky is threatening rain, but there is a line of children and their parents waiting to see the cubs. A gaggle of children gathers outside a large picture window to watch the tigers be fed. The cubs range in age from 4 to 10 weeks. They are under quarantine until they have been given vaccinations and are disease-free. Volunteers in sterile gloves and hospital scrubs feed the tigers a special milk formula from baby bottles. The cubs bat at one another and hungrily gulp at the milk. They look like stuffed animals. They are irresistibly cute.

“Mommy, I want one!” a little girl pleads to her mother “Pleaaaasssseee.”

Stones tries to explain to the kids that tigers are wild animals. They don’t make good pets. It’s a losing effort: None of them is listening. Stones shakes his head. In his 38 years at the zoo, he has seen this too many times. “They have no idea what they are getting into. Those cubs are so cute, and they just bought them because they thought it was cool. But then one day, you’ve got some full-grown tigers on your hands.”

The result can be not only a tragic attack-but also brutal living conditions for the tigers. Many of the exotic animals that reach Stones at the zoo are traumatized from poor treatment in people’s homes.

To illustrate the point, Stones takes me to see a bobcat named Bodie recently brought to the zoo by South Padre Island Animal Control. The bobcat was purchased as a cub by a private owner, who had it declawed, neutered, and its canines filed down. When we arrive at the medical facility, Thomas deMaar, the zoo’s senior veterinarian, is checking on Bodie. “Basically this cat is a living pelt that can no longer defend itself,” deMaar says.

The bobcat’s owner used to drive around with the animal in the front seat of his Lamborghini. Then the bobcat reached sexual maturity. It ran away five times. Each time the local animal control officers had to track it down. “Finally, they called us and begged us to take it,” deMaar says, shaking his head. Stones and deMaar want the pet owner to provide some money for the bobcat’s care. So far, they’ve had no luck. Says deMaar grimly, “We are more of an unsubsidized humane shelter than an actual zoo.”

Behind his desk in his small office, Stones counts off the stories of the tigers and lions in his care. The two lions-Mario and Juana-came from the DEA; they were seized in a marijuana bust. The USDA seized the two biggest tigers, Ike and Tina, because they were being abused. His four young female tigers were part of a traveling freak show. “You know, a five-legged calf and two-headed turtles-that kind of thing,” he says. “These four tigers were little ones, and you could take a picture with them for 20 bucks at the show. But like any tigers, they grew up and got too big.”

The couple who owned the four tigers divorced, he says. The woman got the tigers, and the husband got the house and the land. She moved to Las Vegas and left her ex to feed the animals. “One day he called the USDA,” Stones recalls, “and said, ‘You either come get these tigers, or I am going to shoot them.'”

So the USDA called Stones. The agents promised to help find homes for the tigers. They also said there might be some federal funding to help care for the animals. “That was more than a year and a half ago,” he shrugs. “We’re still waiting.”

When zoos won’t take tigers, law enforcement and private owners turn to people like Richard Gilbreth. A former agricultural and animal science teacher, Gilbreth has been rescuing tigers since 1996, when he became director of the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary, a nonprofit facility on 40 acres in Boyd, just 30 miles north of Ft. Worth. He cares for 56 big cats, including 23 tigers.

Gilbreth has worked with animals all of his life on ranches in the Rocky Mountains and Texas. He also has a general contractor’s license, which comes in handy. “You have to be able to raise money, do construction,” he says. “We do it all ourselves. It’s a 24-7 job.” Gilbreth has built many animal habitats at the sanctuary and a dormitory that houses college interns who come to work with the exotic cats before taking jobs at zoos or getting veterinary degrees.

Caring for these cats is expensive. Every year it costs $500,000 to run the sanctuary. The animals go through 411 pounds of meat a day, which costs about $110,000 a year.

Every day, he says, he receives e-mails and phone calls from people wanting to give him animals. “It’s relentless,” he says. “My first question to anyone who says they want to give me a cat is, how much are you willing to help us?” Almost always, people say they don’t want to contribute money, they just want to give the tiger away. “It bothers me as a human to say ‘no,'” he says. “But as the director, I have to make hard choices. I would put every other cat here in jeopardy if I start taking more animals than I can raise money for.”

Gilbreth is proud of his sanctuary. As he leads a golf cart tour on a blistering August day, he points out the large and sturdy steel enclosures. “I want to show you the right way things are done,” he says.

Each enclosure has a shelter and swimming pool. The tigers, lions, and other exotic felines lie in the cool shade. They watch us with half-hearted interest. He points to a 15,000-square-foot enclosure that houses three young white tigers. “The state of Texas requires a 1,000-square-foot enclosure,” he says. “But for an animal to have a quality life for 20 years, you don’t want to put him in a 1,000-square-foot space.”

The three white tigers approach the steel fence and rub against it. They make low snuffing noises. They are so close and seem so affectionate. Foolishly, I ask Gilbreth if I could pet one. “If you stick a hand or an arm through that fence, it is nothing more than a piece of meat flailing around to them,” he says sternly. “Don’t ever forget that.”

Jerry Stones

The number of abandoned and seized tigers reached epidemic proportions about 10 years ago and hasn’t let up since, Gilbreth says. Tigers are not difficult to breed in captivity. Innovations in tiger cub formulas, diet, and vaccinations have spurred tiger breeders’ success. Many breeding operations turn out white Bengal tigers because they are novelties that generate 10 times more money than orange tigers. (White and orange Bengal tigers are the same species, but white tigers have a double recessive genetic condition.) White tigers’ popularity and price have led to continuous breeding. Many of them originate from a single white tiger brought to the United States in the 1960s. Birth defects are common. Gilbreth points out that the sanctuary’s white tigers are cross-eyed from inbreeding.

Breeding can be lucrative. White tiger cubs sell for $5,000 each. Since tigers can have two litters a year of eight cubs, a breeder can earn $80,000 a year. Many of these white tiger cubs are sold to small businesses that travel around the country displaying them as props and charging tourists to take pictures with them.

Gilbreth pauses for a moment to do some math. A federal law prohibits businesses from displaying tigers older than six months with humans because the cats have become too big and dangerous. So the businesses buy another set of cubs. At least 20 small-time operators in Texas would need eight tiger cubs to work throughout the year, Gilbreth estimates. In five years, that would total 800 tigers.

“Where are all of these tigers going to go?” he asks, then shakes his head as if it were too terrible to comprehend.

There are registered breeders in Texas who have USDA licenses. There are also numerous private owners who have a couple of tigers in their backyard. They are not considered commercial breeders, so no state or federal agency keeps tabs on them. “It’s unreal the number of people who are breeding these animals,” Gilbreth says. “And they are selling them, too.”

While white tigers can fetch thousands, the less desirable orange tigers can be had for free. Gilbreth says a man showed him a recent ad in Animal Finders, a subscription-only newspaper that advertises exotic animals for sale. The ad read “Tiger free to a good home. Good with children.”

A glut of tigers in an unregulated market can mean tragedy for the animals. On Christmas Day last year, a sanitation crew in Dallas found a dead, 1-year-old Bengal tiger near Interstate 35. The tiger had a bike lock cable and rusted wire around its neck. It had been shot five times.

Farinato, with the Humane Society, says there are few places for tigers to go when their owners abandon them. He estimates there are at least 5,000 tigers nationwide in private hands. “There are maybe 30 to 50 accredited sanctuaries in the United States,” he says. “Then there are the ones that are not accredited. When you a place an animal in one of these places, there’s no telling what will happen to it.”

For many years, Texas had no regulation of dangerous wild animals. But after a series of high profile maulings and deaths were reported in the media, the nonprofit Texas Humane Legislative Network prodded the Legislature to pass the Dangerous Wild Animal Act in 2001.

The law requires counties and cities to register dangerous wild animals such as lions and tigers with local animal control. It mandates that the owner keep the animal in a secure enclosure of adequate size, humanely care for the animal, and maintain at least $100,000 in liability insurance. It also gives cities and counties the option to ban private ownership of wild animals altogether.

Since the bill became law, fewer than half of Texas’ 254 counties have enforced the legislation, says Cil Holloway, president of the legislation network. “In a lot of cases, counties are resentful because they feel the responsibility should fall on a state agency like Texas Parks and Wildlife,” Holloway says. “But the agency wouldn’t touch the legislation. So our only option was to go with the local authorities. But the local authorities are of the opinion that they don’t have the resources to handle lions and tigers and cougars. So they are not going to enforce it.”

Holloway says the b
ll was the most difficult and frustra
ing piece of legislation her organization ever backed. “I don’t think we’ll revisit it anytime soon,” she says. “It becomes a property rights issue for people who believe they should be able to own anything they want. That’s fine and good until you find out that a guy two houses down owns a couple of tigers. A neighborhood child walks up to the fence and is injured or killed.”

Don Feare, an Arlington-based animal welfare lawyer who works with the network, says the only way to save tigers from being overbred and abandoned is to make it unlawful to breed or possess a tiger, though he concedes that’s unlikely. “Until that’s done, people are going to continue buying tigers,” he says. “Where are they going to go? All the rooms at the big cat sanctuaries are all rented, folks, so what do we do now?”

Back at the Gladys Porter Zoo, Jerry Stones does his best to convince the public that buying an adorable tiger cub is a bad idea. Unfortunately for Stones, the idea still hasn’t caught on. So Stones is back on the phone trying to find homes for seized and abandoned tigers and lions. “I’m not advocating that these animals be put down,” he says. “But they are living a life of hell-it’s not a good life. They are being put out in five-acre pens and shot in canned hunts or being left tied up their entire lives. It’s no way to treat a living creature.”

Investigative reporting for this article was supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Institute.

Melissa del Bosque is a staff writer and a 2015-16 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

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