The Washington Post
September 03, 2002
A Cat-Fight Brews Over Backyard Wildlife; Push for Federal Curbs on Tigers
as Pets Is Strongly Opposed by Some Private Owners
Helen Rumbelow, Washington Post Staff Writer
For Suzette Stidom, having a pet tiger in her back yard is one of the rights that make her proud to be living in the United States.
Top Cat, who prowls around his enclosure behind Stidom's home in Houston, is just one of an estimated 5,000 pet tigers in the country -- a number believed to be at least equal to the world's wild tiger population.
"I got him because I wanted to be different from everyone else," said Stidom, who has owned Top Cat and his companion, a lion, for eight years.
"If you can afford to feed them, and keep them safely as they get old, you should be allowed to have one. This is America." But a coalition of animal welfare groups, headed by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and the Humane Society of the United States, says the booming trade in pet tigers poses a danger -- particularly to children and the tigers themselves. And it's a danger, they say, that has crept up on Americans without warning.
Not only is it legal to keep a pet tiger in most states, but it is also largely unregulated -- a situation responsible, the two groups say, for the reports of pet tigers maiming, or killing, humans every year.
From an animal welfare point of view, they say that tigers -- who in captivity are just as fertile as domestic cats -- are filling up animal sanctuaries. They arrive after stalking an owner's children, being found chained up in basements, being used as "guard dogs" by drug dealers or wandering through neighborhoods.
The coalition is backing the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, a bill introduced by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), which seeks to bar the interstate movement of bears and big cats. This would be the first federal regulation of tigers as pets. Pet tigers are not covered by federal endangered species law because those in private hands usually come from "mongrel" strains.
An exception in the proposed legislation would be made for animals that have a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates licensed outfits such as circuses, zoos, sanctuaries or research facilities, Miller said. Noting that both USDA and the American Veterinary Medical Association strongly oppose big cats being kept by untrained private owners, Miller said he believes the legislation is not controversial and could be enacted before the end of the current congressional session.
"This is a stunning cultural phenomenon, but it's the first time a serious effort has been made to try and stop it," said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society.
"There is no justifiable reason for a person to have a tiger or a lion as a pet. These are potentially dangerous animals, and they belong in the wild, not languishing in a dirty cage in someone's back yard in Arkansas or New Jersey or Ohio," he said.
The Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals opened a special wing at its shelter to house big cats in response to the increasing numbers. The group rescues about one pet tiger every three months and twice that number of other big cats. Texas does not ban pet tigers but requires them to be registered.
"It never ceases to amaze us what people will attempt to keep as pets and under what conditions," said Patricia Mercer, executive director of the Houston group. "These are gorgeous animals, and people buy the kittens as pets for their children -- they reproduce in huge numbers and anyone can get them on the Internet for $ 500." Celebrity tiger owners, such as Michael Jackson and Mike Tyson, only increase their appeal.
"But this is absolutely insane -- children are about the size of their prey in the wild, and they like to stalk them. It is like putting a time bomb in your back yard," Mercer said.
There have been three savage attacks by tigers kept in back yards in Texas in the last three years: In October, a 3-year-old boy was killed by his grandfather's pet tiger, and the year before, a 4-year-old had his arm ripped off by a pet tiger kept by his uncle. In 1999, a 10-year-old girl was killed when a tiger clamped its jaws around her head while she was helping her stepfather brush the pet's fur.
At least seven people have been killed by tigers in the United States in the last four years, said Philip Nyhus, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. This is less than the number killed by dogs, which kill about 15 people a year. But given their relative numbers, it makes tigers one of the country's most lethal pets.
When owners grow afraid or tired of the tigers, which grow to 600 pounds and eat 20 pounds of meat a day, the animals often end up at the humane society, Mercer said.
Recently, Mercer's inspectors went to a home on an unrelated charge and found five tigers in critical condition and one dead. They had been kept for breeding purposes. Other tigers arrive at the shelter with their paws mutilated by attempts to declaw them with garden shears.
The lack of regulation means that no one knows exactly how many pet tigers there are in the United States.
The International Species Information System, which tracks the number of animals in licensed zoos and sanctuaries, says there are 1,151 tigers in the world's zoos, about half of them in the United States. No one knows precisely the number of wild tigers -- a highly endangered species – but conservation experts believe it is about 5,000.
The only person believed to have tried to count America's pet tigers is the writer Alan Green, for his book, "Animal Underworld"; he estimated roughly 5,000 five years ago.
According to a recent report by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZAA), 11 states, including Maryland, and the District of Columbia ban tigers as pets, and seven states have partial bans. Fourteen states, including Virginia, require permits, and the rest have minimal restrictions, such as asking for a veterinary certificate. Enforcement is often lax, Green said.
Green visited most state capitals to get the available documents on pet tiger regulation; in their absence, he made estimates by monitoring trading on the Internet and animals offered to sanctuaries and zoos.
"We don't know for sure, but I would feel pretty confident in saying that we have at least as many pet tigers in the United States as in the wild," said Steve Olson, director of government affairs at AZAA.
"We know the numbers are large because our members get offered a lot of unwanted tigers every year," he said. "[I]t's hard because zoo collections are very carefully managed genetically and can't just take in a fully grown pet tiger."
Groups that oppose such regulation say it tars responsible owners with those who abuse their animals, said Patti Strand, president of the National Animal Interest Alliance. Another organization, the 13,000-strong Ohio Association of Animal Owners, has been active in opposing restrictions on exotic animal ownership; officials did not return calls for comment.
"Laws like this have in mind a stereotypical person who owns an exotic without knowing anything about them," Strand said. "But . . . under certain conditions, it can be appropriate. Some people are fanciers who really take a lot of time and care over looking after their animals."
Sunday, September 22, 2002
3 lions killed after being loose near Quitman
QUITMAN (AP) -- State and local investigators are trying to figure out who owned three lions that were found roaming the countryside of Cleburne County, sending residents into a panic.
The 600-800 pound African lions were shot and killed after several days on the loose.
Authorities killed a male African lion found in a wooded area Friday. It was the third lion to be killed near or on the property of Safari Unlimited, a lion and tiger farm.
The owner, Steve Henning, said the lions didn't belong to him. He speculated the animals were released on his farm sometime early Thursday morning. Safari Unlimited has at least 10 lions and two tigers, Henning said. He said he has a permit to keep the animals as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Arkansas does not have a law regulating the harboring of exotic animals. By the end of the day Friday, two of the lions had been killed, one shot by Henning, another by his neighbor. One of the lions had also attacked and killed a camel on a nearby farm.
Once word got out that the lions were on the loose, residents became frantic.
"People were running up and down this road, and it seemed like everyone had a gun," Henning said. "It was awful."
Henning's neighbor, James Heaver, wasn't taking any chances. "I walked my kids to the school bus stop this morning with a rifle," Heaver said.
The state Game and Fish Commission issued orders that the lions be killed. "With the danger to human life and domestic livestock, the choice was clear," said Loren Hitchcock, the commission's assistant director of enforcement.
Residents of the area blame Henning for the incident. They say the lions would never have been loose in their community if Henning did not keep wild animals on his property.
"I want him gone," said neighbor Johnny Vaughan. "It's sad. Those animals shouldn't be penned up like that. It's not a life for an animal and it's dangerous for us. Someone should investigate this."
Jack Allen, a deputy with the Cleburne County sheriff's office, said his agency has little authority over Henning's operation.
He said officers checked on Henning's animals and, "they were in real good shape."
Tiger Attacks Child at Calif. School
09/20/02 20:22 EDT
.c The Associated Press
SCOTTS VALLEY, Calif. (AP) - A tiger grabbed a child by his head Friday at a school assembly, sending the 6-year-old boy to a hospital.
A trainer was leading the tiger from an auditorium at Baymonte Christian School when it lurched over seats and grabbed the boy's head in its jaws, police Capt. Harry Bidleman said.
The boy was in guarded condition at Stanford Medical Center, spokesman Robert Dicks said. A CT scan would be used to determine any head injuries, then stitches would be used to close the cuts on his head.
Principal Steve Patterson wrestled the boy from the tiger, school spokesman Jenny Paul said.
The tiger's appearance at the school was a reward for students who sold magazine subscriptions. Paul said about 150 children attended.
The tiger was in the custody of Zoo to You Wildlife Education Inc., Bidleman said. Police planned to coordinate an investigation with animal control agencies.
``It sounds more accidental than criminal, but there could be some overseeing bodies that would want this completely investigated,'' he said.
Zoo to You did not immediately return a message asking for comment.
Ark. Town on Edge After Lions Killed
09/23/02 17:13 EDT
By DOUGLAS PILS
.c The Associated Press
QUITMAN, Ark. (AP) - Lisa Vaughan says her log cabin in the woods was so peaceful that sometimes the only sound that could be heard was the trees swaying in the wind.
Now she's listening for lions.
In the past week, four 600- to 800-pound African lions believed to have some connection to a nearby exotic animal farm have been killed near this central Arkansas town. And residents say the terror may not be over, because no one knows for sure whether more lions are on the loose.
``I had a terrible headache and my blood pressure has been up. ... It's been a long ordeal,'' said Vaughan, whose husband, Johnny, killed two of the lions with his .30-06 rifle.
``Everybody is scared around here,'' added neighbor Arvil Skinner. ``People have to sit out with a high-powered rifle just to let their kids play in the yard.
``That's just how serious it is. It might be all right and it might not. They might still be out there. We just don't know.''
The Vaughans believe the lions belong to animal farm operator Steve Henning, who moved in on the other side of the patch of trees almost a year ago with 11 African lions, 30 tigers, five mountain lions and a lynx.
Henning says the lions killed in the woods were not his. He speculates that someone who tried to give him lions last week turned them loose on the 44-acre property of Safari Unlimited, the lion and tiger farm he operates. The farm is not open to the public, Henning said.
Aside from the pens where Henning keeps his cats, the property is not fully fenced.
Neighbors expressed disbelief over Henning's response.
``That really blows my mind how anyone could believe that story,'' Lisa Vaughan said.
Henning was not able to give Cleburne County sheriff's deputies or Arkansas Game and Fish officials the name of a person they could track down, authorities said.
``Mr. Henning told us the guy goes by different names and he doesn't know where he lives,'' Deputy Jack Allen said.
Sheriff Dudley Lemon inspected Safari Unlimited and said he thinks Henning is telling the truth. But he added that believing Henning's story does mean more big cats could be roaming the woods.
Johnny Vaughan said he will be the first to apologize to Henning if it's proven the lions that have been killed didn't belong to him. But he and his neighbors around this town of 700 want local laws amended so that Henning can't keep lions and tigers in their neighborhood.
``We've got to try and pass something to not only protect the people, but to protect the animals,'' Vaughan said. ``It's sad to think that someone can have that many animals but they don't need some sort of license.''
Sunday, September 29, 2002
Police shoot, kill escaped tiger
Animal fled from owners at B-N truck stop
By Megan Hopper
BLOOMINGTON -- A Bengal tiger weighing approximately 390 pounds was shot and killed Saturday after escaping from a trailer at the Travelcenters of America truck stop in Bloomington.
The 2-year-old, 8-foot-long male tiger named Tigger was reported missing at about 5 a.m. Saturday when it got away from its owner at the truck stop at the junction of Interstate 55/74 and Market Street in Bloomington.
The owner of the tiger, Mary Jeanne Williams, 44, of Ivanhoe, Texas, was traveling with her son, John Bryan Johnson, 19, with the animal, Bloomington police said. The tiger apparently escaped as Johnson was trying to give it some water.
Officers from Bloomington, Normal, the McLean County Sheriff's Department, and Illinois State Police and members of the Bloomington Fire Department, set up a perimeter around the truck stop to try to locate the tiger, according to Duane Moss, media relations specialist for Bloomington police.
Miller Park Zoo employees also were on hand.
A state police helicopter, a bloodhound and a Bloomington Fire Department ladder truck helped officials find the tiger and trap it in the brush line next to Travel America.
Andy Schickle brought his scent-discriminating bloodhound to the scene to help in the search. Schickle said the dog was able to help locate the tiger after smelling its pillow to get its scent.
After locating the tiger, officials tried for several hours to tranquilize it but were not successful, said Bloomington police Assistant Chief Kevin Livingston. Bloomington-Normal veterinarian Matt Fraker and Miller Park Zoo director John Tobias assisted with the attempts at tranquilizing the animal.
According to Moss, authorities also attempted to use an animal capture gun brought in from the Glen Oak Zoo in Peoria, but it malfunctioned.
After the animal advanced along a fence toward officers positioned to stop its movement, the tiger was shot and killed.
Livingston said he believed the animal had been shot twice but did not know which agency was responsible.
"It did not end the way we had hoped it would end," he said.
Fraker, a veterinarian at the Prairie Oak Veterinary Center, said they had no choice but to shoot the tiger because 20 seconds after it was shot with a blow gun it jumped up onto a Department of Conservation truck.
Bloomington police had an excellent organizational plan, Fraker said, and restrained from shooting the tiger when it was running around.
"The reason why this was so drawn out is because of the BPD's patience to get the tiger out," he added.
Fraker said he has never had a positive experience with tigers and feels they should not be privately owned.
"Some people might think it's cool to own an animal like this, but this is not cool, so don't do it," he added.
Tim and Cindy Lee of Bloomington heard of the tiger on the loose Saturday morning and went to Travel America to see what was going on.
Tim, who heard the tiger roar several times, said, "Oh, you hear it, and it just makes the hair on your arm stand up. When it roars, it's something and everybody scatters, even the policemen with guns."
Moss said no charges were being filed against Williams or Johnson but added that the case would be referred to federal authorities for further review of possible transportation regulation violations.
Tuesday, October 1, 2002
Feds investigate tiger shooting
By Karen Blatter
BLOOMINGTON -- Federal authorities continue to investigate a Texas woman
whose pet tiger escaped from a trailer and was shot dead Saturday near a
Bloomington truck stop.
The 2-year-old Bengal tiger named Tigger had been staying at a sanctuary in
Hennepin, but a judge ordered the animal removed from the state after the
animal bit a 7-year-old girl, causing more than 100 stitches.
Because of that incident, owner Mary Jeanne Williams was taking the tiger
back to Texas when she and her son, John Bryan Johnson, stopped in
Bloomington for breakfast.
Previously, the nearly 400-pound tiger lived on Williams' 125-acre farm in
Ivanhoe, Texas, and was transported to Illinois after a new law in Texas
required her to have a license to keep the animal.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investigating the case, but no charges
have been filed against Williams.
Williams, her son, and the tiger had stopped at Travel Centers of America,
505 Truckers Lane, when Johnson opened the trailer gate to water the animal
about 5 a.m. Saturday. The tiger pushed against the gate and escaped into
the parking lot. Police warned neighbors to stay indoors and sectioned off
the area as police and zoo officials tried to sedate the animal.
Tigger was shot about 3 p.m. after the tiger charged a truck on which two
officers were stationed. Authorities feared the animal would jump a fence
and run into a neighborhood. Police had been ordered not to shoot the animal
unless it tried to leave an area surrounded by armed officers.
Normal veterinarian Matt Fraker, who works with animals at Miller Park Zoo,
said large exotic animals should not be kept as household pets. "They have
the ability to be tame to some degree," he said, adding that a situation
like Saturday's "is impossible to prevent -- they still retain basic
Fraker and Miller Park Zoo director John Tobias said Williams' trailer was
inadequate transportation for the tiger because it didn't contain two
barriers to prevent escape.
The zoo moves animals in cages that are contained within a vehicle, such as
a van. The two walls allow workers to feed and water the animals without
allowing an escape route.
The Williams' trailer only had a gate covered by a ramp that could be
lowered. Williams and her son were able to coax Tigger close to the trailer
before police arrived, but the animal was startled and ran off.
"I told Bryan just to wait for me (before giving Tigger water) while I
finished a bite to eat and coffee, but he was just too excited to be around
Tigger again," said Williams. "(Tigger) just wanted to get out and play with
Williams' farm in northeast Texas has an enclosure with a pond. At times,
the tiger was allowed into the house with the family, she said.
'That is as big as my kitchen'
Bloomington police, state police, conservation officers and other
authorities tried to watch the tiger, which was difficult because it was
hiding in thick brush next to a chain-link fence. Fraker tried
unsuccessfully several times to tranquilize the animal with a blow gun and a
The fence abutted the back yard of Marjorie Locke's home at 710 Brad St.,
where an officer warned her not to go outside. She got into her car in her
garage and left during the nine-hour standoff, but was unable to return home
until after the tiger was shot.
"I didn't see it or hear it, but it was kind of scary," she said. "I don't
think they should be allowed as pets. I heard it was 8 feet long -- that is
as big as my kitchen."
The animal's body is at the McLean County morgue, where it is being held as
evidence. The tiger may be turned over to the U.S. Department of Fish and
Wildlife Services because Bengal tigers are an endangered species.
Police Kill Escaped Tiger at Illinois Truck Stop
Mon Sep 30, 9:17 AM ET
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (Reuters) - Illinois police shot and killed a 400-pound Bengal tiger that escaped from its owner at a roadside truck stop near a residential area on Saturday.
A veterinarian in the central Illinois town of Bloomington unsuccessfully tried to tranquilize the 8-foot-long tiger four times before police killed it because it appeared to become aggressive.
Bloomington police spokesman Duane Moss said the animal was being transported in a wooden crate on a trailer pulled by a car. The tiger's owner, 44-year-old Mary Jeanne Williams of Ivanhoe, Texas, told police the animal broke out of the crate when her son went to give it some water.
She and her 19-year-old son, John Bryan Johnson, were released after questioning by police, who said they would refer the case to federal authorities for the possible violation of animal transportation laws.
While the tiger was on the loose for hours, about two dozen police officers kept it corralled against a fence that separated the truck stop from a nearby residential area.
Several attempts by the tiger's owner to retrieve the animal were unsuccessful. Police shot the animal when it made "aggressive" moves toward a pickup truck that had several conservation officers on top, Moss said.
Sunday, October 6, 2002
Outside the bars - regulations lax for exotic animals
By Scott Richardson
Lions and tigers and bears inhabit more than the Land of Oz. Toothy animals and other dangerous critters are found in the Land of Lincoln as well.
Last weekend's encounter with a tiger that got loose at a Bloomington truck stop just yards from a residential area is one example.
Most exotic, atypical animals reside behind bars in zoos, wildlife refuges and research centers regulated by federal, state and local authorities. But many that don't, avoid the net of detection unless there's trouble.
For example, the federal government has no jurisdiction over exotic animals kept as pets.
A "pet" is exactly how Mary Williams of Texas described her relationship with her tiger, Tigger, before Bloomington authorities shot it to death after its escape. Authorities apparently question Tigger's legal status as a pet, because a federal investigation of the episode is under way.
Beasts for sale
Officials say it's surprising that more incidents of that sort don't happen, because the market for wild beasts is exploding in America. Magazines devote pages and pages to exotic pet owners. Internet sites offer tiger cubs for as little as $200.
"You can buy them for less than registered puppies," said Mary Hartman, of Rochester, Minn.
Hartman is becoming a crusader for stricter control of dangerous animals after her 7-year-old daughter, Emily, was injured in an attack by a tiger at a roadside menagerie a year ago.
"It's the law of supply and demand. They are so cheap because there's so many out there," she said. "And regulations are so lax, you can drop an elephant through them. Regulations have not kept up with the growth of the private sector."
Several government agencies are charged with overseeing the domestic jungle.
At the forefront is the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. The agency licenses zoos, circuses, exhibitors, pet stores and other dealers of exotic animals. People who transport exotic animals also must be licensed.
Some animals indigenous to the United States are classified as endangered or threatened, such as certain raptors. Their owners must be licensed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
No one tracks 'pets'
But no agency keeps track of people who have exotic animals as pets, said USDA spokesman Jim Rogers.
"You can have your own private zoo, and as long as you don't invite your neighbor over and charge him a buck to see it, you're legal," he said. "I don't think anybody out there keeps numbers of them."
The USDA did take one action last year in the arena of private ownership of exotic pets. The agency issued a warning to "remind people the cats are dangerous, just in case they'd forgotten," Rogers quipped.
As a result, regulation of private ownership falls under local and state laws, which Hartman calls inadequate.
In Bloomington, Tigger may have violated an old city ordinance prohibiting bears or other dangerous animals from roaming the streets without a leash. No prosecution is planned at this point, said Bloomington Corporation Counsel Todd Greenburg.
State law in Illinois is more restrictive.
The Department of Natural Resources licenses animal rehabilitators to nurse injured and sick adult game mammals and birds, or abandoned young until they can be returned to the wild.
For animals uncommon to Illinois, the Ag Department administers the Dangerous Animals Act. Anyone lacking a federal permit -- zoos, pet stores, licensed dealers and transporters -- may not possess lions, tigers, bears or a variety of other animals that walk or crawl.
The act also prohibits private ownership of big cats, hyenas, wolves and coyotes.
The list also includes poisonous or life-threatening reptiles. That includes constrictors that reach 6 feet in length -- like the one that squeezed the life out of a child in Southern Illinois. That occurred after Jeff Squibb joined the Illinois Department of Agriculture as a spokesman 3 1/2 years ago.
The recent Bloomington incident was not the first involving a tiger during Squibb's tenure. Seven men have been charged in the Chicago area with killing tigers for hides and other body parts for use as folk remedies and aphrodisiacs.
Squibb and Carroll Imig, assistant administrator of the Ag Department's Bureau of Animal Welfare, admit it's unlikely the agency will even know about an exotic animal in the state until a complaint is received. Fortunately, Squibb said, such complaints "are few and far between."
Rare dangerous animals sometimes just show up in the countryside without explanation.
The last known record of a wild mountain lion in Illinois was in Alexander County -- in 1862. So where did a mountain lion struck and killed by a train in Randolph County in 2000 come from? Was it wild or an escaped captive? No one came forward to claim the carcass or accept responsibility.
Lt. Tony Norman of the state Department of Natural Resources conservation police said he got calls from excited hunters wondering if they could shoot an elk that escaped from a game farm.
The answer? Yes. DNR only regulates wildlife that are protected or have hunting seasons controlled by law. The elk is not among those.
At times, DNR also gets the first call about exotic animals.
Norman recalls a case where a woman had two tigers as pets in a cage no stronger than a dog kennel.
The larger tiger decided to kill the smaller one and easily tore down a fence separating the two. Alarmed, the owners tried to shoot the larger tiger with a shotgun. They succeeded only in wounding and enraging it. It was finally killed with a rifle.
"This happens. It's unfortunate when it does," Norman said. http://www.app.com/app2001/story/0,21133,628068,00.html
Jackson tiger victim in critical condition
Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/12/02
By A. SCOTT FERGUSON, NINA RIZZO and JOSEPH SAPIA, STAFF WRITERS
JACKSON -- The husband of Joan Byron-Marasek, the owner of the Tigers Only Preservation Society, was in critical condition after being attacked by one of the compound's 24 tigers as he tended to the animals yesterday afternoon, police said.
Janiw Marasek, 70, was taken by ambulance to Jersey Shore Medical Center, Neptune, with injuries to his upper left arm, head and face. A hospital spokeswoman labeled his condition as stable yesterday afternoon, but declined to elaborate. Last evening, the hospital reported his condition as critical.
Marasek was conscious and alert when police arrived at the 12-acre compound near Route 537 and Allyson Road at about 3:15 p.m., Lt. Richard Ferrarelli said. It was not clear whether he'd been bitten or mauled -- or both – by the tiger.
Police had no information on just what Janiw Marasek was doing when the animal struck.
All 24 of the preserve's tigers were accounted for late yesterday, police said. No other injuries were reported.
Joan Byron-Marasek has fought with authorities over her compound since Jan. 27, 1999, when a 430-pound Bengal tiger was found roaming loose in a neighborhood nearby. The animal, never proven to be Byron-Marasek's, was shot and killed after efforts to tranquilize it failed.
Ferrarelli stressed that at no time was there any risk that tigers might escape the compound yesterday. The attack took place in what Ferrarelli described as the "innermost fenced area."
"The tigers are kept in the center of the compound," Ferrarelli said. "Around that are several layers of fencing, and the attack took place in the center of the compound."
As of late yesterday, police were treating the incident as a first aid call and an animal attack. The state Division of Fish & Wildlife and the Ocean ounty Prosecutor's Office were also investigating.
Ferrarelli said Division of Fish & Wildlife officials would determine what, if anything, would happen to the attacking tiger.
Joan Byron-Marasek could not be reached for comment last night. Darren M. Gelber, a Woodbridge attorney who represents Byron-Marasek in court proceedings over the state's plan to move the tigers to a refuge in Texas, declined to comment about the incident when reached at his law office last night.
Drawn-out court battle
The state has refused to renew the Maraseks' exotic animal permit, maintaining the animals can be better cared for at the Wild Animal Orphanage near San Antonio -- a plan she opposes. Earlier this month, she petitioned Superior Court Eugene D. Serpentelli to reopen a hearing on the relocation plan.
Serpentelli said on July 30, when he closed the hearing, that he would reopen it if she could present a more suitable relocation plan. Joan Byron-Marasek is expected to appear in court again on Oct. 25. Gelber has said he will tell the judge why the orphanage is a "completely inappropriate place to house her tigers."
Bill Sleight, 52, a Byron-Marasek supporter, said yesterday afternoon that such attacks happen occasionally when people deal with large felines. "Every big cat trainer has been bitten or come close," said Sleight, a Long Branch resident who heard about the incident from another Byron-Marasek supporter.
"From what I understand, he let down his guard," Sleight said.
The tigers view the Maraseks as equals, Sleight said. "A tiger hitting a tiger like that is no big deal," Sleight said. "A tiger hitting a person, then it's a big deal. It doesn't necessarily make the animal a bad animal."
But Kevin Wingler, 41 -- who lives in The Preserve, a nearby development, and is a Byron-Marasek critic, had a different take.
"If these people are supposed to be professional handlers and it could happen to them, just think what could happen to one of us if it got out," said Wingler, whose back yard borders the Marasek property.
Wingler's daughter, Jessica, 17, was home and learned about the accident soon afterward.
"She was petrified; she didn't know what was going on," Wingler said.
Wingler said yesterday was "like three years (ago) all over again," referring to the wandering tiger incident from January 1999. Elaine Fiore, 38, another Preserve resident whose back yard is adjacent to the compound, has renewed concern a tiger could escape.
"We all said if somebody got killed, they'd (the tigers) be gone like that," said Karen Clag, 36, another Preserve resident, as she snapped her fingers.
Clag said she hopes yesterday's incident will prompt some action in the case. "It's unfortunate it came to that," Clag said. "I just want to see the tigers be removed and nobody hurt."
Husband of `Tiger Lady' attacked in pen
Saturday, October 12, 2002
By BRIAN X. McCRONE
JACKSON - The husband of "Tiger Lady" Joan Byron-Marasek was attacked by one of the tigers on her controversial preserve near Six Flags Great Adventure yesterday afternoon and suffered severe injuries to his arm, head and face, police said.
The husband, identified in previous published reports as Jan Marasek, was tending to the animals in the tiger pen when he was attacked, police said.
Police described his injuries as significant but not life threatening and said he was conscious and alert en route to the hospital.
Investigators initially worried that one of the 24 Bengal tigers on the Tigers Only Preservation Society (TOPS) preserve was missing, but a preliminary count by police found all the animals there, township police Lt. Rick Ferrarelli said.
Ferrarelli assured concerned residents none of the Bengal tigers came close to escaping the private wildlife facility. "The attack occurred within the most fenced-in area," he said. "At no time was there any threat to public safety."
The injured man was taken to Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune by ambulance with a nearly severed arm and injuries to the head, police said. Marasek's condition was conditionally fair last evening, said Felice Mikelberg, a spokeswoman for Meridian Health System.
The 400-pound animal is one of 24 tigers at the TOPS preserve on Monmouth Road (Route 537), owned and operated by Byron-Marasek. It is two miles from Interstate 195. Jan Marasek was the only other full-time worker on the preserve, Byron-Marasek said in 1999.
The state Department of Environmental Protection sent officers to the site to determine whether the area needed to be secured, DEP spokeswoman Amy Cradic said.
State and local officials have been pressing the "Tiger Lady of New Jersey" to give up ownership of the huge animals or move from the suburban setting since a 430-pound tiger allegedly escaped and roamed for several hours through a nearby neighborhood three years ago.
The animal was shot and killed after tranquilizers failed to subdue it.
While it was never proven the tiger had escaped from Byron-Marasek's lair, DNA tests performed by state officials following the incident linked the tiger to the facility.
Yesterday's ferocious and sudden attack occurred around 3:30 p.m. as the 70-year-old Marasek interacted with the tiger in the innermost fenced pen, police said. The large reserve includes a densely wooded 12-acre area.
Several months after the 1999 incident, the state deemed the preserve unfit for the cats and revoked her license.
Byron-Marasek has fought a mostly losing 3 1/2-year court battle to keep from losing her tigers.
She has battled attempts by the state to place the cats in a San Antonio, Texas, animal orphanage and fought with New York state over a license to move the cats to a 200-acre farm in Hamptonburgh, N.Y.
Byron-Marasek is looking for another large area to move herself and the cats. But state officials say she may even have trouble keeping ownership of the animals.
A DEP official said the state has been concerned about the animal's welfare since they began more closely monitoring her handling of the cats. "The state did do an inspection yesterday," DEP spokesman Al Ivany said in July, "and found that many of the tigers on site are very skinny - one of them with ribs showing, I believe. There's no evidence of food at the site."
Byron-Marasek could not be reached by The Times last night.
Lion escapes, but county won't charge Esko man
by Mike Sylvester
Last Updated: Thursday, October 10th, 2002 07:16:28 AM
ESKO - Charges will not be filed against Esko resident Heath Sunnarborg, who was forced to shoot his pet lion after his escaped from its cage on Sunday.
“We will not be filing charges,” said County Attorney Marv Ketola. “According to the DNR (Department of Natural Resources), he’s not required to have a permit for tigers and lions. You do need a permit for certain types of exotic species, but not lions and tigers.”
Sunnarborg owned the 450-pound adult lion, along with several other exotic animals, including a tiger and a cougar. According to Ketola, the lion dug its way out of some sort of a holding pen on Sunday. Sunnarborg later found the animal and shot it, to prevent it from causing harm.
“This individual did the proper thing,” Ketola added. “The statute requires certain action to be taken in the event of an escape, but the individual did the right thing. He gave notice to the authorities and shot the animal himself.”
Sunnarborg did not return calls to the Pine Journal. It remains unclear what he’ll do with the remainder of his exotic animals.
“It sure would be strange to be driving down a county road and seeing an African lion,” Ketola said. “That’s about as unique as it can get.”
Big cats, big questions
It's up to Texas counties to regulate ownership of lions, tigers and cougars
By STEFFI KAMMERER / The Dallas Morning News
On the morning of his mid-September trial, Charles Ehrhardt put on a T-shirt with the American flag. He thought it would remind the judge of what it stands for. "At least the America I thought I live in. I thought, on my own property I could do whatever I wanted."
And for him, that includes having three tigers and a lion in his yard. But in Franklin County, Texas, there are limits.
Last year, Texas required counties to regulate dangerous animals through an extensive permit process or to ban ownership. With this, Texas joined the majority of states, which control the private possession of exotic animals as pets.
There had been no regulation since the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department ended its oversight of exotic animals in 1997. As a result, Texas, with its wide-open spaces, became a haven for wild animals.
The Ehrhardt case is an example of a classic confrontation between Texas' spirit of individualism and the competing interests of public safety and animal welfare. The laws regulating the ownership of exotic cats in Texas are still taking shape, putting private owners at odds with neighbors and animal-welfare activists.
Nobody knows for sure how many big cats live in Texas households. State Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, estimates about 10,000. Patricia Mercer, director of the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, agrees with that number. "At least," she says. "I guess there are 3,000 in the metropolitan areas alone. There are certainly more than 500 in Houston."
Two weeks ago, Ms. Mercer says, she seized her latest tiger from a private owner near Houston. It was in a makeshift cage attached on the top of a trailer. The animal was pregnant and weighed 160 pounds. It should have been at least 400 pounds. The tiger died within 48 hours.
It's easy to get a big cat. They are advertised in special magazines and on the Internet.
"Lion, tiger, cougar cubs, hand-raised and on the bottle, ready to go," states a typical ad. Prices start at $300. Celebrity tiger owners, such as Michael Jackson and Mike Tyson, only increase their appeal.
But cute little critters grow up to be potentially uncontrollable beasts. All over the country, attacks have alarmed the public. In Texas alone, three children have been injured by tigers in recent years. Last October, a 3-year-old boy in Lexington in the Hill Country was killed by a pet tiger.
The year before, a 4-year-old's arm was ripped off by a pet tiger kept by his uncle in Channelview, near Houston. In 1999, a 10-year-old girl was killed by her stepfather's pet tiger in Yorktown, near San Antonio.
"People say they are wild, but you really have to go to a dictionary to see what wild is," Mr. Ehrhardt says. "They are 100 generations away from wilderness."
Teresa Parker, the neighbor who filed the complaint, offered a different perspective. Her house is next to the three mobile home lots, which the Ehrhardts bought in May. One of the lots is occupied by their house, the two others by the animals. Two of the big cats are in cages the size of a child's bedroom. The other two are staying in a transport trailer until
their cage is finished. They can turn around, but can't do much more. Ms. Parker says she is afraid to let her 8-year-old son play outside. She had 400 residents in the Mount ernon area sign a petition asking that the cats be removed.
Judge Paul Lovier said the Ehrhardts violated the law. Keeping wild animals in Franklin County is prohibited, no matter what license you have, no matter how well the animals are cared for. He issued them a fine of $400 for every day the animals stay where they are.
Almost a month after the trial, Mr. Ehrhardt has still not moved the cats. The fines are adding up, but he has not paid anything. With his income as a construction worker, there's no way he can afford it, he says. If they don't pay, they may be arrested. "This is a violation of constitutional rights." He's considering moving. He would never give his animals away, he says. "If I have to, I'm ready to go to jail."
"I play with them every day. We cuddle, wrestle, roll around the yard. It's part of their enrichment, part of their lives." And, yes, he has been bitten. "But not severely."
He has been reading about tigers since he was a little boy.
"You get addicted to them. This is worse than any drug you can take." And he believes the animals could not live without him and his wife. "They are so used to us. They would get aggressive if we were not around."
The Ehrhardts might find fewer legal problems in other counties. The state passed the law but left it up to the counties to enforce it. The effect is chaotic. Some counties officially prohibit the private ownership of big cats but do nothing to actually stop pet owners, says Robert "Skip" Trimble, a Dallas lawyer who has studied the issue for years.
Mr. Trimble works for the Texas Human Legislation Network, a grass-roots organization that works for laws that protect animals. He lobbied for passing the bill and says there is nothing wrong with the law. "But many counties, for whatever reason, are not enforcing it. Some might not want to deal with the paperwork of registration. Others decided to ban big cats but to make exceptions for certain individuals."
The situation around Dallas represents the confusion pretty well, Mr. Trimble says. Dallas County does not allow private ownership of wild animals. Collin County also prohibits private ownership but has a grandfather clause for people who kept wild animals and had a U.S. Department of Agriculture license on the day the ordinance passed. However, they are not allowed to breed the animals, and they have to register.
Tarrant County and Denton County both prohibit ownership.
Out of the 254 Texas counties, 22 decided that anybody can have a dangerous wild animal as long as it is registered, 166 counties ban ownership, a rule that includes shelters and roadside zoos. "I know of many sanctuaries that really should not be where they are," says Mr. Trimble.
About 35 counties have not set up the registration program required by the state, Mr. Trimble says. Regulations in the rest of the counties fall someplace in between.
The law states that people who got their certificate from the county have to send it to the Texas Department of Health within 10 days for notification.
So far, the department has only received eight registrations for a total of 51 animals. Mr. Goodman, the state representative from Arlington, asked Attorney General John Cornyn to issue an opinion reinforcing the law. Mr. Cornyn responded in early September, saying the counties need to take action.
"If they thought there was another way to interpret the law, they now know that this is not the case," says Mr. Trimble. If the counties still don't comply, "we will have the attorney general filing lawsuits against them," says Mr. Goodman. Recently, a man told him that he saw a Bengal tiger and two cubs on a field in Central Texas. "I am sick of hearing stories like this."
Big cat sanctuary
Carol Asvestas runs the Wild Animal Orphanage in San Antonio. It is a nonprofit sanctuary with 90 big cats. They come there malnourished, one's missing a leg, another is almost bald. They have been chained in basements, kept as guard animals by drug dealers, as props by photographers, as housepets.
In the past two months, Ms. Asvestas has had 60 requests to place big cats in her sanctuary. "Now that some action is taken against the owners, they need to get rid of their animals."
She has to send everybody away unless they are willing to fund the $12,000 cages. And they have to sterilize their animals. "So what do you think people do if I cannot take them? Bring them to the vet and pay for their euthanization?" She doubts it. She worries that if nothing is done, people will set some of the animals free to fend for themselves.
Ms. Asvestas was one of the founders of the American Association of Sanctuaries, a nonprofit group of shelters like hers. Two months ago she resigned. The standards were not high enough, she says. She did not want to be associated with shelters that play with their animals in public view, a dangerous practice that sometimes encourages people to buy the cats.
The existing law is not efficient in stopping the pet industry, she says.
"In some counties, all that breeders have to do is call themselves sanctuaries and keep breeding." She says out of the 300 to 400 shelters in Texas, 75 percent are "pseudo-sanctuaries."
The public is often misled by impressive sounding credentials, such as USDA licenses. To qualify for a license, you must only convince the officer who handles your case that you are a "knowledgeable and experienced animal handler," and that the cage is large enough for the animal to stand, sit and turn around in, says Jim Rogers, spokesman for USDA.
Since tigers have become so cheap, breeders let their animals have cubs two or three times a year to maintain their income, Ms. Asvestas says. The people who buy them may do so with good intentions. They might even think they are saving an endangered species. But their lack of knowledge is dangerous. The gentle behavior of a tiger can be deceptive.
Neither she nor any of her co-workers ever touch the animals - a precaution that few owners take.
Ms. Asvestas says she wishes there were no need for her business. She wants private ownership of big cats to be stopped. Coalition involvement Relief may also come on the national level.
A coalition of animal welfare groups, headed by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and the Humane Society of the United States, is backing the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, a bill introduced in July by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., which seeks to bar the interstate movement of pet bears and big cats.
"It is an attempt to stop the epidemic proliferation," says Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the humane society. "Yet this alone would not be sufficient." He says private ownership needs to be banned on the state level.
After years of controversy, Texas has at least outlawed using big cats in "canned hunts," where the animals are killed in an enclosed area. Mr. Pacelle says he hasn't heard about that law being broken. "But my guess is, it still happens, knowing the nature of the industry," he says. "There are too many unscrupulous people out there."
No matter the purpose, there is no justifiable reason to own a tiger or a lion, he says.
"These are potentially dangerous animals and they belong in the wild, not languishing in a dirty cage in someone's back yard," he says.
"A tiger in a community is a time bomb. It is not the question, if there will be a fatal incident, but when."