Friday, September 22, 1995

Date: 09-22-1995; Publication: USA Today; Author: Tom Curley

A police posse aided by a helicopter with a heat-sensing device tracked and killed 15 pet tigers and lions Thursday after they bolted from an animal "shantytown" in southeastern Idaho.

The cats, some weighing up to 500 pounds, escaped Wednesday from a private compound near the tiny tourist town of Lava Hot Springs.

The escape prompted many of the town's 420 residents to remain indoors, and the elementary school was closed for fear children would be attacked while waiting at bus stops.

Beyond the town's borders, the incident raised doubt about the wisdom of allowing private ownership of wild animals with little or no government oversight. The cats that escaped were "the size of Shetland ponies with big teeth," said Harry Morse of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Lava Hot Springs resident Katherine Howell, 58, took no chances when she went to work Thursday morning. "I've got a gun in my purse," said Howell, who works at the hot water springs, which draw about 250,000 tourists a year.

More than 50 sheriff's deputies, SWAT team members and sharpshooters tracked the adult cats with the help of the helicopter. One lion, surprising a game officer, took a springing leap before being shot dead. Morse said the cats were killed because the deputies didn't have tranquilizer guns.

"They feel terrible about having to kill the animals." The only injuries reported were to the animals' owners, Robert Fieber and Dotti Martin, who were mauled as the cats escaped. They were taken to the Pocatello Regional Medical Center, treated for injuries and released. The couple, who were unavailable for comment, had as many as 50 African lions, tigers and cross-bred cats in a smelly, rundown compound on the outskirts of Lava Hot Springs. They also raise wolf hybrids.

The compound, known as Ligertown Game Farm Inc., has long been a local eyesore, said resident Paul Miller. "It's just about as bad as any shantytown you've seen on television in South Africa," said Miller.

Local officials said Fieber has a history of run-ins with game officials in Oregon and Idaho over his exotic pets. Police said the couple could face charges over the escape, but wouldn't elaborate.

The animals were being held in a multi-cage compound, enclosed by corrugated aluminum and fencing that ranged from 6 to 10 feet tall. The cats apparently escaped by jumping on a pen and leaping over a fence. Even before the escape the compound had come to the attention of officials at the U.S. Humane Society.

Richard Farinato, director of captive wildlife protection for the society, said there may be hundreds of backyard zoos across the country, some open to the public. The compound run by Fieber and Martin was not. "They're all wild animals no matter how you treat them," said Farinato. Most of the wildlife compounds, if regulated, come under the jurisdiction of county or municipal law. "There are no federal laws that prohibit the keeping of wildlife unless they are endangered species. These were not," Farinato said.

Big cats on a short leash
Date: 08-03-2000; Publication: The Christian Science Monitor; Author: David Holmstrom, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Joe Parker points to Bubba, one of his bushy-maned lions resting peacefully in the sun in a large, outdoor enclosure. "Bubba spent a few years of his life in a crack house in Cincinnati chained by the neck," Mr. Parker says.
Minutes later, Bubba sends out a thundering, deep-throated roar that moves through the trees and across the roofs of nearby houses like an express train. Bubba's industrial-strength voice stakes out his territory, a reminder to the other 66 lions, tigers, leopards, panthers, and cougars nearby that despite chain link fences between them, he rules.

But Bubba really doesn't rule at all anymore.

In fact, he and the other big cats in this self-described 40-acre animal sanctuary known as Tiger Haven are for the most part simply fortunate to be alive and well-fed.

Tiger Haven saved the cats from the plight of most captive-bred big cats in the United States. When they are old or in the way, few people want them, and even fewer want to take care of them. "Bubba, and many of the other cats, arrived here unwanted and abused," says Parker.

The extent of abuse among many of the estimated 5,000 to 9,000 big cats in captivity in the US, is in the open now. Journalists have uncovered widespread exploitation and abuse of big cats in zoos, traveling circuses, roadside zoos, and in suburban backyards where big cats live as caged "trophies." And each year, many children and adults are tragically attacked by big cats who remain untamed and unpredictable carnivores despite years of interacting with people.

Marginally protected by the federal Animal Welfare Act, and subject to ever-changing state and local laws, or no laws, many cats become tangled in mistreatment from birth to death. As documented in journalist Alan Green's recent book, "Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species," many zoos sell grown cats as "surplus." (reviewed Oct. 30, '99)

Mr. Green cited an American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) newsletter noting that surplus zoo animals are bought legally by circuses, breeders, dealers, or exhibitors. In turn, the new owners display, trade, auction, or often breed the animals for quick sales to private owners.

Some zoos try to minimize the flow of animals into unknown hands, but because of a lack of local enforcement and sheer numbers, animals often disappear despite the best intentions of officials.

"I've been here at the Minnesota zoo for 16 years," says Ronald Tilson, director of conservation at the zoo, and coordinator of the AZA's Tiger Species Survival Plan, "and we never placed an animal unless we had someone from our facility inspect the site.... We do surplus our tigers and for the most part I think [they] stay with zoos until they die. I can't say for sure that no tigers from AZA's Species Survival Plan have never shown up at a roadside facility. Once we surplus an animal I am not obligated to follow it."

Many lions and tigers, as well as bears or primates, end up in roadside zoos, or pseudo sanctuaries that exploit the animals in the name of the Endangered Species Act. Some are sold in animal auctions. Others are killed in clandestine "canned" (or fixed) hunts offered for thousands of dollars by hunting ranches even though many states have banned such hunts.

As cuddly cubs, tigers and lions first attract paying crowds at the best of zoos. Because few states forbid private ownership of big cats, breeders know that furry cubs can easily charm private buyers, too. Prices for tigers range from $700 to $5,500, and can be bought in some states from breeders licensed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

But many new owners misjudge the level of care and safety needed for an exotic wild animal that grows to weigh 450 pounds or more. As the cats become older, many go from owner to owner in a downward cycle of misery. Local authorities often have to intervene in severe cases with the help of the Humane Society, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), or other animal activist groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Sanctuaries, like Tiger Haven, will accept the unwanted animal, or rarely, an abused animal can be euthanized at a veterinarian's recommendation.

Jennifer O'Conner, a cruelty caseworker with PETA, say she had 400 requests last year from people wanting to find a place for their big cats. "Usually, they are embarrassed," she says, "because they didn' t fully realize that cute cubs become aggressive cats in two months. There aren't many places to put these animals."

Legitimate nonprofit sanctuaries are proving to be the safest and healthiest last resort for unwanted big cats. But some self-described sanctuaries, while improving animal living conditions, simply continue the exploitation. "They do a rescue," says Lynn Cuny, past president of The Association of Sanctuaries (TAOS), and director of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation near San Antonio, Texas, "and they get publicity, donations, and credibility. The public is misinformed because they think a tiger in a 6 by 6 cage in Louisiana is not good, but an 8 by 8 cage in North Carolina is OK. And some of these operations breed and sell out the back door."

TAOS, founded in 1992, now has 36 accredited members adhering to strict rules, including no breeding or animals on commercial display. Animals are supposed to roam, roar, eat, and bask in the sun.

Recently, the USDA became so concerned about big cat abuse in the hands of untrained private owners that it publicly discouraged it. "I never thought they would take such a strong stance outside their regulatory role," says Ms. O'Conner. "There is not one reason for any private citizen to keep one of these animals as a pet."

Breeders and owners disagree, arguing that the issues are hardly black and white. Cynthia Carper, a licensed big-cat breeder in southern Ohio, says, "Cats aren't making it in the wild. Countries that are having trouble putting food in the bellies of their people aren't interested in saving tigers. I'd rather my future grandchildren be able to say, "I actually saw a tiger here," and not have go to a book to see a picture of one, like a carrier pigeon."

Such rationale sends animal activists into orbit. "This creates a situation where you are breeding wild animals with the purpose of putting them into the hands of the public," says Ms. Cuny. "When a cub is sold by a breeder, she can control who it is sold to, but she does not control what happens to the animal." Despite what some breeders insist, lions and tigers circulating in the US pet trade are not endangered species caught in the same dilemma as the dwindling numbers in Asia and Africa. In the captive world, inbreeding occurs. Lack of managed care, especially genetic management, has clouded the lines of big cats as the numbers have risen.

But endangered or not, big cats are wild in temperament and habits, even though they are generations removed from jungles and savannahs. Standing near Bubba at Tiger Haven, Parker says he spends $6,000 a month on meat. "Tigers aren't like dogs in recognizing that we give them their food," he says. "All food belongs to the tiger. We just happen to have it at that moment of feeding. It belongs to them. What are we doing with it?"

Sanctuaries sometimes have to turn to unique ways to raise funds to stay ahead of operating and maintenance costs. For Tiger Haven, Parker operated a bingo parlor for 2 1/2 years, raising more than $2 million until the state ruled it illegal. In l989, he was a prosecution witness in a joint federal/state probe of alleged corruption of bingo in Tennessee. He was accused of skimming proceeds in an action unrelated to Tiger Haven.

"If you love your animals and are doing the best you can for them in a sanctuary, " says Richard Farinato, director of Captive Wildlife Protection of the Humane Society of the United States, "you keep yourself squeaky clean to not risk the animals you profess to love."

When this reporter visited Tiger Haven unannounced and toured the grounds at Parker's invitation, all the animals were clean, healthy, and for the most part kept in large enclosures. "We are not open to the public," he says. "We don't do performances, and we don't breed."

A stroll through Tiger Haven triggers an underlying question: Why do big cats generate such increasing legal and illegal activity? Parker thinks the US is "Disneyized" into believing "we can be comrades" with big cats.

Cuny thinks it's a case of a consumer society misunderstanding the natural world. "We are a society that lives for consumption and ownership, " she says. "And with nature, in the strangest way, we want it in our backyard, but not out of respect. So people say, 'look at this tiger.' It's incredible. I've got to have one, like a new Mercedes. Our culture tells us to own everything, including tigers."

Cover: Animal Wrongs: The growing trade in animals, some of them rare species, poses dangers to public health and safety--and to the animals themselves
Date: 01-22-2001; Publication: Maclean's; Author: SUSAN MCCLELLAND with RUTH ATHERLEY in Vancouver

At first, all that can be seen of Subira, a 2 1/2-year-old lioness, are her amber eyes and a tuft of golden hair. Peering out from behind a shed at Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, 300 km north of Toronto, the big cat stands completely still, her head tilted and her gaze set on two people walking towards her pen. When the couple gets about 10 m away, Subira springs forward, closing the gap in huge bounds. Stopped by the wall of her cage, she paces back and forth, curiously sizing up the newcomers. When she recognizes her keeper, she turns kitten-like, languidly rubbing her back and side against the cage' s steel meshing.
Such a cute image. Such a sordid story. Subira means "endurance" in Swahili, and the big cat has needed that quality in her initially miserable life. She was dumped into the exotic pet trade as a month- old cub -- likely, authorities say, from an overstocked zoo. She was purchased at an auction in Alberta by a 17-year-old Vancouver girl, who soon realized she could not care for the growing lion and just locked it in a garage. She eventually sold Subira to two Penticton, B.C., men, but they, too, found lion ownership taxing. They couldn' t find another buyer, however, and considered having the lion put down before Aspen Valley agreed to take the cat in.

When Subira arrived at the sanctuary, she was severely malnourished -- at nine months of age, she weighed only 25 lb., the average size of a two-month-old cub. As well, the pads on her feet were cut, her nose was badly scratched and blood oozed from two large wounds on her forehead. She was in such a pathetic state that sanctuary founder Audrey Tournay felt compelled to take care of the lion even though her facility usually only rehabilitates animals native to Ontario. "I have seen many tragedies because of the wildlife trade," Tournay told Maclean's, "but I never get used to it."

A lion as a pet? It might sound outrageous, but there are few restrictions on ownership of wildlife, so the trade flourishes legally through classified advertisements in newspapers or trade magazines, at auctions and on the Internet. The majority of those exotic animals are imported birds and lizards that are sold by local shops to good homes. But more rare -- and dangerous -- imports are streaming into Canada, so the folks next door might someday acquire a wild cat, or a venomous snake or a rare monkey. That doesn't necessarily pose a problem if the animals are housed in enclosures that protect public safety, and if their owners are capable of caring for them. But too often, the animals suffer at the hands of ignorant or abusive owners. Lucky ones such as Subira are rescued and rehabilitated, but others end up dying prematurely from living in deplorable conditions, being killed for their body parts or sold to shooting ranches.

In Canada, there is little to stop that from continuing. The maximum sentence for cruelty to animals under the Criminal Code is six months in jail and a $2,000 fine. Some species are protected in certain provinces -- Quebec has an Act Respecting the Conservation and Development of Wildlife, which, among other things, regulates animals in captivity. But there are no national endangered-species or animal-welfare laws. In fact, when the federal Liberals suspended Parliament prior to last fall's election, the species-at-risk act, which would have offered some protection to wild animals on the Canadian Endangered Species List, died before gaining final approval. The suspension also killed proposed Criminal Code amendments that would have imposed longer sentences and heftier fines for animal abuse. "The public thinks there is more protection out there for animals than there is," says Shelagh MacDonald, program director for the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies in Ottawa.

There is more than just a shortfall of legislation. Traditional animal- welfare organizations such as local humane societies are generally geared to caring for domestic animals like cats and dogs. And the few wildlife sanctuaries, such as the one north of Toronto, are strained beyond capacity. "When they hear about abuse of captive wildlife, Canadians are outraged," MacDonald says. "What they don't realize is how much of this we actually see."

The trade of wildlife is a huge industry. No single agency keeps global statistics, but experts calculate that the legal side of the business is annually worth $15 billion worldwide, and millions in Canada. Law- enforcement agencies conservatively estimate the worldwide value of the illicit trade in wild animals at more than $20 billion a year. That makes the black market for things such as rare species and animal body parts worth more annually than the illegal traffic in arms (page 40). It is exceeded by the traffic in illegal drugs.

The pet trade has long been linked to narcotic smuggling. A U.S. fish and wildlife service report claimed that more than one-third of all cocaine seized in 1993 was connected to pet importation. That year, officials at Miami International Airport found several hundred boa constrictors from Colombia stuffed with 35 kg of cocaine. Most of the snakes were dead on arrival. Bruce Bagley, an international relations professor and drug-trade expert at the University of Miami, says narcotic smugglers frequently started out in the legal business of exporting animals. "Since the 1960s, Colombian drug lords have been involved in dealing wildlife," says Bagley. "They would get known by customs, so no one was suspicious later when cocaine got smuggled with the animals."

Usually, though, the pets themselves are the contraband, and because the United States is the biggest market, dealers often route their illicit cargo through Canada. Last year, Michael and Harold Flikkema of Fenwick, Ont., were convicted of smuggling as many as 12,000 tropical and rare finches from Africa into Europe and Canada, and then to the United States. "Enforcement at the borders isn't always secure," says Nathalie Chalifour of World Wildlife Fund, "making Canada a good conduit to the United States."

The problem is not new. Back in 1973, alarmed by the impact of the commercial trade on populations of rare animals, wildlife experts drafted the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora -- known as CITES. Today, Canada is one of 152 nations that are signatories to CITES, which, among other things, bans international trade in endangered species and attempts to control traffic in threatened species through a permit system. But while CITES has made it more difficult to legally trade certain animals, the industry has still grown exponentially. In Canada, 7,400 live animals were imported or exported in 1993 with CITES permits. By 1997, the most recent year for which Canadian import-export statistics are available, more than 25,000 CITES permits were issued.

Even conventional pets can be hazards. Dogs can bite; cats can scratch. But exotic species pose a far more serious threat to public health, particularly since there are no federal licensing standards for pet- shop operators. Salmonella bacteria, including strains resistant to antibiotics, have been found on pets such as turtles, snakes, iguanas and lizards. And some primates, which are increasingly popular as pets, are suspected by scientists of carrying a number of deadly viruses. In 1997, a 22-year-old lab assistant at Atlanta's Emory University died from herpes B after coming into contact with bodily fluid from a rhesus macaque. And there are fears that some primates even carry HIV and the Ebola virus. "HIV appears to have come from chimpanzees, " says Darrel Cook, lab manager at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver, "the same with herpes viruses that don't cause problems for the monkeys but are fatal to humans." Cook added ominously: "There are all kinds of health risks in the wildlife trade. We just don't know what they all are yet."