Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Pet Tigers

National Post (f/k/a The Financial Post)
February 20, 2002 Wednesday National Edition
Rover may just have to roll over:
Exotic pets such as tigers are all the rage in the United States
By: Sam Leith

NEW YORK - In Philadelphia, police raiding a burglar's home find a fully grown tiger in his bedroom. In Missouri, a tiger is found trotting down the middle of a freeway.

In New Jersey, the case of Joan Byron-Marasek, the self-styled "Tiger Lady" of Jackson, who has been given a week to come up with a satisfactory way of getting her 24 tigers out of town, is focusing attention on modern America's extraordinary obsession with exotic pets.

Byron-Marasek styles her tiger collection the Tigers Only Preservation Society and says her mission is to "resolve the human-tiger conflict and create a resolution." A New Jersey court ruled a year ago that her tigers were pets -- in contravention of the conditions of the federal licence that requires her to use them either for education, performances or research.

Now the court has given her a week to come up with a satisfactory alternative plan before they ship them to a tiger sanctuary in Texas. That alone will cost the state more than $200,000.

The black market in exotic pets is second only to that in drugs, with $20-billion of sloths, wolves, endangered parrots, giant constrictors and big cats smuggled across borders every year.

There are even recorded instances of drug dealers using tigers as guard cats.

America is, after all, the home of the pet hotel, the pet restaurant and the pet beauty salon -- and where conspicuous symbols of status are unashamedly prized.

But only in a place where the inalienable right to liberty is afforded such elaborate constitutional protections could it be quite so difficult for the state to compel a neighbour to remove a pet to a tiger sanctuary.

It has taken nearly three years since an escaped tiger was found roaming the back streets of Jackson for the state of New Jersey to be in a position to demand that Byron-Marasek get rid of her tigers; while she argued that, under the federal supremacy clause, the state was overreaching its powers.

Federal controls on exotic pets are still exceptionally weak, and only eight of the 50 states have laws against the ownership of wild animals. Three states have no restrictions on what people are allowed to keep as a pet.

The determined tiger owner can play the state off against the federal government and, when all else fails, simply move to another state -- as Byron-Marasek is now planning to do.

Jim Sciascia, of the New Jersey Environmental Protection Agency, said: "The judge has accepted the fact that the tigers have to go. Now it's a question of how they're going to go.

"She has submitted a plan which has to be reviewed by us and resubmitted to the judge with our comments. She won't tell us where she is planning to take them."

There are estimated to be 15,000 privately owned tigers in the United States -- 75 times as many as there are in zoos -- and according to The New Yorker magazine's recent article on the Byron-Marasek case, there are seven times as many tigers kept as pets in the country as there are Irish setters. Anyone can buy a tiger cub for about $500.

These remarkable statistics are offset by another one: Since 1998, five people have been killed by tigers in the United States and 29 injured seriously enough to make the news.

Various reptiles are responsible for 20 deaths a year.

Tippi Hedren, the actress who starred in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and now runs a wildlife reserve in California, is championing a bill to strengthen federal controls. She argues that the problem has to be addressed at the federal level.

"The breeding and illegal selling of these animals must be stopped, not only for our public safety but for the safety of the animals," she said.

But two years after it was introduced, the bill -- known as the Shambala Act, after her sanctuary -- is still grinding through the House of Representatives.