Tuesday, December 31, 2002

1995 Big Cat Attacks Part 2

And so the trade thrives. It is sometimes easier to buy poisonous reptiles, primates and wild cats than it is to buy some pedigreed dogs or cats. There are Web sites that list exotic-animal associations, chat groups and forthcoming wildlife auctions in the United States and Canada. In last November's issue of Animal Finders Guide, an American trade magazine, there were advertisements offering silver foxes for $150 each, tiger cubs and coyote pups for $450 each, a pair of Himalayan bears were listed at $3,750 each and giant zebras were going for $6, 750.

Even protected animals are easy to acquire. When a Maclean's reporter, posing as a buyer, asked a Newfoundland-based dealer over the Internet last month about purchasing a Canadian lynx, the dealer claimed he had access to 190 suppliers, 23 of them in Canada, and as many as 25,000 cats. He was willing to sell one for as little as $300, even though the trade in wild Canadian lynx is regulated under CITES. Collectors are not surprised. Matthew Todd Paproski, a film producer in Maple Ridge who keeps cougars for use in his TV work, doubts that legislation can regulate the pet trade. "It will just create a black market," Paproski says. "The animals will continue to be sold."

Zoos have often been suppliers to the trade. They turn over older animals, or excess animals from breeding programs, to brokers who then sell to stores, auctions and even hunting ranches in Canada and the United States. As part of being accredited by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums, larger zoos are not supposed to sell to dealers who are known suppliers of the pet trade. Yet animals from esteemed operations still end up in the pet trade. "None of this is illegal, which makes it pretty damn hard to control," says Calvin White, chief executive officer of the Toronto Zoo, which has sold thousands of mammals, birds and reptiles. "We can do all the things we can to control where our animals go, but that's a small piece of the whole puzzle."

CAZA represents only 23 zoos. There are about 170 quasi-zoo operations in Canada that are not accredited by CAZA. In an investigation last year of nine Alberta and Saskatchewan zoos by Zoocheck Canada Inc., a nonprofit organization that monitors captive wildlife, and the World Society for the Protection of Animals, all nine housed some animals in substandard conditions. And Lynn Gustafson, owner of GuZoo Animal Farm in Three Hills, Alta., was convicted of illegally possessing Sika deer and cruelty to an animal. The cruelty conviction resulted in a $300 fine and 30 days in jail, yet Gustafson was not stripped of his provincial zoo permit and continues to operate.

Some aspects of the trade are completely unregulated. There are no federal standards governing breeders, and not surprisingly, there is confusion over what is and isn't legal. One Saskatchewan breeder, Russell Hanson, who has raised Canadian and Eurasian lynx, recently decided to get out of the business. Last year, Hanson was falsely charged by Alberta wildlife officials with exporting Canadian lynx into Alberta without permits, even though no law required him to have them. The charges were dropped, but not before Hanson's reputation was sullied and he had been made a target of militant animal-rights activists. At one point last year, RCMP officers warned him not to open mail from New York City because a group there was threatening to send letter bombs to Canadian breeders.

The poster animal for the worst aspects of the pet trade could be Oso, a grizzly bear. Oso was captured as a cub in the wild after a hunter killed his mother. His first home in captivity was a travelling circus, where, like most performing bears, he was declawed and had his front teeth removed. When he outgrew his cubby cuteness, he was sold to a man in Sudbury, Ont., and when the man moved away, Oso was left behind, locked in a cage with no food or water.

Barely alive when he was discovered more than three weeks later, Oso was taken in and partially rehabilitated by people in Belleville, Ont., who then sold Oso to a collector. Over time, his weight dropped to 300 lb. from 750, and at one point in 1997, he was nearly sold for his organs. But he was rescued by Bear With Us, a sanctuary near Huntsville, Ont. "No matter what people say, there is no education value to owning wildlife," says Michael McIntosh, founder of Bear With Us. "It's just a fulfilment of someone's ego."

Last summer, Oso died of a heart attack at age 15 -- less than half the usual lifespan of a grizzly. A veterinarian said the premature death was caused by years of abuse, although none of Oso's previous owners were ever charged. But that's how it goes in the wildlife trade. Animals are often sold with little regard for their welfare, or for the safety of the public at large. And without a serious commitment to legislative protection and enforcement in Canada, there is little hope for change.

Exotic Pets For Sale

Some wild animals are as easy to acquire, and occasionally as inexpensive, as common pets such as purebred dogs or cats. But even truly exotic animals, including rare species, are readily available. Maclean's surveyed classified ads, online providers and pet shops and found the following animals available last week:

Wolverine (endangered in some parts of Canada)--$30,000

Green iguana (endangered in some parts of central and South America)- -$49.99

Baby monkeys, marmosets, lemurs and capuchins--$2,500 to $10,000

Galah cockatoo (a parrot imported from Australia)--$3,000

Cougar--$1,200

King cobra--$900

Creature feature: Don't forget to put the cat out
Date: 11-28-2000; Publication: The Mirror; Author: Jane Brum

Would you like to trade Tiddles in for a mountain lion or a Bengal tiger? In America, thousands of people keep big cats, spending a fortune on food, vet bills and even swimming pools for their pets. We visit - gingerly - four women who share their homes with these majestic creatures Anna Studer stands waving a squeaky dog toy and a raw turkey drumstick, calling to her cat. Shahzarah dozes in the shade of a spreading oak tree. She is only 14 months old, but she already weighs 400lb - more than two grown men. Her tongue can strip flesh from bone in seconds and her purr is like the throb of helicopter blades. She stretches, sniffs the air and ambles towards her `mom', stopping to rub around Anna's ankles before accepting the mid-morning snack.

`She's a big baby,' Anna smiles, scratching the African lioness's huge caramel haunches. `She met a pizza delivery girl at the front door once and really freaked her out, but she wouldn't hurt a fly.'

Anna and her partner Brian also share their modest home in Tell City, Indiana, with a black Asian leopard called Jumanji, a Siberian tiger called Shere Khan, and Lindsey the cougar. Each of the cats has a bedroom in the house, opening out on to individual enclosures in the garden. Anna still allows Shahzarah the run of the house. `You have to sacrifice a lot to be a big cat owner,' she says. `Furniture doesn't last long, neither do TV remote controls. It's very hard to get babysitters for these animals, so we haven't had a holiday for six years. We're also $4,000 in debt because of vets' fees and the $150- a-week food bills, but they're worth it.'

In most American states, the purchase of a $10 licence allows you to keep exotic animals. It is estimated that there are at least 20, 000 big cats in private ownership in the US. You can own anything from a bobcat to a polar bear. `Endangered cats caneasily be bought at auctions, through dealers or over the Internet,' Anna explains. `We trained for a year in big cat husbandry, but many people have no idea of their needs. They see a cute little bundle of fluff, not the 50st adult that it becomes.'

Surprisingly, there are very few incidents with big cats. Statistically, you're more likely to be attacked by a pit bull. The cats are all domesticated, taken away from their mothers at a few days old and hand reared so they build a strong bond with their owners. As Anna says, `Why would they want to hurt us?'

Shahzarah sidles up and flops on to her back, legs inelegantly spread. `She wants her belly rubbed,' says Anna, sending Brian to fetch Shahzarah' s brush. `She gets offended if I don't do this every day.' After ten minutes of grooming, the massive lioness, who hasn't finished growing, makes short work of lunch. Each day, she has seven turkey drumsticks and a tin of Zoopreem, a specially formulated food for large cats, which costs $2 per can and arrives by the truckload. Shards of turkey bone splinter and ricochet across the carpet. She farts with the delicacy of a thunderclap and a meaty, noxious smell pervades the room.

In his bedroom, Shere Khan is grooming his whiskers with his saucer- sized feet. `He's so gentle,' says Anna, kissing his nose, `but he likes to "mark" female visitors by spraying them. That way he knows they're part of his harem!' The floor trembles as45st of tiger bounds outside to chase leaves. Next door, Jumanji reclines on his bunk bed, surrounded by stuffed toys and a litter tray the size of a small beach.

`One cat to watch out for is Slasher,' says Brian, pointing to a small domestic tabby sleeping under the coffee table. `Now that one is wild! '

When she was young, Cheryl Hahn's mother told her to expect something amazing every day. She looks out of her kitchen window towards the white Bengal tiger splashing in its swimming pool a few feet away. `With a husband like Steve, I never know what's coming through my door next,' she says. `First it was a baby bear in his pocket, then we moved on to tigers and a lion.'

The Hahns's south Indianapolis home has immaculately manicured grounds, in which a state-of-the-art enclosure houses Corky the tiger, Scooby the lion, Bubba the bear, and two white Bengals, Blizzard and Sassy. `We bottle- fed them from cubs,' explains Cheryl. `They all lived in the house until they got to a size when the furniture was suffering.'

As Cheryl approaches the enclosure, three-year-old Blizzard, and Sassy, four, greet her with the enthusiasm of overgrown kittens, tails in the air. White tigers are rare - there's only one for every 10,000 ordinary tigers. Their chocolate stripes and ice-blue eyes come with a $10,000 price tag. Cheryl banters with them and they purr and lick her hand with tongues like heavy-grade sandpaper. `There are so few tigers left in the wild' she says, scratching behind Blizzard's ear, `it's nice to feel we're helping preserve them, and we get to enjoy them every day.'

The sleek coats and Colgate-bright teeth of these cats bear witness to the care and expense lavished on them by the Hahns. `Steve won' t tell me how much it cost to build this facility,' laughs Cheryl. `I just know that it would've paid off the house.'

`They're spoilt,' admits Steve proudly. `They eat chicken and a canned food called Nebraska, which is what the zoos use, and have more toys than they know what to do with. Every year a vet cleans their teeth and ears and vaccinates them.'

Cheryl tucks Rocky, a Yorkshire terrier the size of one of Blizzard' s paws, under her arm. `We have very long days and early mornings. It's kinda hard to stay asleep when your lion starts roaring. I think the neighbours have got used to it now.'

Amanda Sorg shakes her head over the state of her stained living-room carpet. `I guess white wasn't the best colour to choose when you've got mountain lions in the house,' she admits. `My life is an endless round of scoop the poop!' There is a faint smell of cat wee as Austin, a four-month-old mountain lion cub, suddenly ambushes her from behind the sofa and latches on to her knee. Like most privately owned exotic cats he was de-clawed at six weeks old, but his teeth are intact and pin-sharp.

Amanda, 20, lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with her boyfriend Gary Dutcher. `When I first met Gary, he told me he had cats. Then he showed me his back and I realised he wasn't talking about Persians.' She attempts to interest the cub in a bottle of milk. He knocks her flat with a flying leap and leaves her in a heap of giggles. `We paid $1, 800 for him from a dealer in the Animal Finder's Guide, which advertises just about every kind of animal. He had to be bottle-fed every two hours through the day and night at first.'

Austin unsuccessfully attempts to jump the baby gate designed to keep him out of the kitchen. Outside in a yard, 7m x 15m, Sampson and Alana, adult mountain lions, prowl around a single, large wooden box in the centre for them to climb on. The highway a few feet away drowns out all but the most plaintive of their yowls. `They want company, ' explains Amanda, as she shuts Austin in his room with his cuddly toys and the lights off. Like any kitten, he needs lots of sleep. `We're trying to encourage them to breed, but Sampson doesn't seem to know what to do.' They're aiming to get a federal licence to breed snow leopards. `We'd have to pay $25,000 on the Internet for two snow leopards because they're endangered,' Amanda says. `But they have up to four litters a year, with each kitten selling for around $10, 000, so we could earn $160,000 a year. I'd give up my job as an admin assistant and we'd move to the country.' She clearly loves her cats, but the lure of $160,000 may be an added factor – her ticket out of Fort Wayne and a tedious nine-to-five existence.

With Austin asleep, she baths her two serval cubs (spotted African wild cats), lathering them up with baby shampoo, each one a foamy, hissing ball of fluff. `I spend three hours a day cleaning and feeding the cats,' she says, `and we spend about $400 a month on chicken alone. And these cats are going to be around for 20 years or more. It's a big commitment.'

It's dark in the basement of Cheri Fecker's house, but the green eyes of her pet cougar can be seen glinting in the shadows. Maya peers out from behind a tangle of electric wiring and heating pipes, hissing and sniffing the air.

Six-year-old Maya shares the basement with a bobcat named Ziba, a pool table and a gallery of Harley memorabilia. Cheri is the Indiana State Women's Pool Champion and practises daily under a watchful feline gaze.

`Maya was a surprise birthday gift from my husband,' she says. `She sat in a cage in the garage for three days, I was so scared of her. I couldn't imagine what Dennis was thinking of. He'd found the advert for cougar cubs in a local paper, but I knew nothing about keeping cats. I've just paid $800 for Maya to have root-canal work done because I didn't know she needed dietary supplements, she just got chicken.'

All 4ft and 9st 7lb of Maya slinks across the carpeted floor. In a sudden change of mood, she seizes one of Cheri's slippers and dances skittishly away, her 3ft-long tail sweeping a lamp and an ashtray to the floor. Every few seconds she looks at Cheri to make sure she' s still the centre of attention.

`The most expensive part of owning these animals is their caging and keeping them stimulated,' says Cheri. `I spend a lot on toys and we' re hoping to expand her enclosure. It breaks my heart that she's never been able to break into a full run in her life.'

There are moves afoot in America to pass a bill which would make private ownership of big cats virtually impossible for people like Cheri, and bring the US more into line with our own Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which demands strict screening of potential keepers and accommodation, plus hefty insurance cover in case of injury to others. `There's no way I could afford to take out the insurance this law would demand, ' says Cheri. `I, and most other owners, would have to have our cats killed. It would be carnage.'

Cheri writes the newsletter for the Midwest Exotic Felines Educational Society, an organisation committed to fighting the cause of private owners and their animals. There are now more tigers in captivity in America than there are wild in the rest of the world. However, this glut of big cats in the private market has had the tragic effect of making them more valuable dead than alive. Tigers and lions are bought by dealers for `canned' hunts, where people pay up to pounds 100,000 for the pleasure of shooting them at close quarters, or they are sold in Asia for use in medicines. `We'll do anything to protect these cats,' says Cheri. `I want my grandchildren to know what a tiger looks like, not just to read about them in books.'