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SOS Rhino : In the News : Current Rhino News : Exotic pets growing more accessible in USA So is concern to protect humans as well as beasts

Exotic pets growing more accessible in USA So is concern to protect humans as well as beasts

  By Tom Vanden Brook
6 December 2002

There are as many tigers kept as pets in the United States as there are living in the wild, prompting calls for a stop to the importing of the big cats.

There are about 10,000 wild cats in private hands nationwide, the Humane Society of the United States says. About 5,000 of those are tigers, the same number believed to be in the wild around the world.

About a dozen states ban owning exotic pets, according to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Bills to bar the interstate sale of lions, tigers and bears as pets died at the end of this year's session of Congress. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who sponsored the House version of the bill, says he'll reintroduce it after the new Congress convenes in January.

Right now, it's relatively cheap and easy to buy a big cat. In the USA, a tiger cub reportedly can be had for $350 -- about the price of a purebred puppy. Conservationists also have heard of roadside stands peddling tiger cubs for $50 each.

The federal government doesn't regulate large cats as pets. State and local governments offer a crazy quilt, ranging from no rules to outright ban.

''As long as a community or state doesn't ban keeping a tiger, all it takes is a couple hundred bucks and a thick skull,'' says Wayne Pacelle, director of governmental affairs for the Humane Society. ''Each wild animal kept as a pet in a community is a time bomb waiting to go off. They're genetically programmed to kill.''

That happened in October of last year. A 250-pound pet tiger in Texas dragged a 3-year-old boy to death. The tiger grabbed the youngster by the foot and fled. The boy's head struck several objects, and the tiger released him only after it was beaten. The boy had been brought near the animal to have his photograph taken.

Serious injuries occur, too: In New Jersey this October, one of 24 pet tigers mauled a man, injuring his arm, head and face. In Florida, a 750-pound tiger bit a woman's head.

''Every time you pick up a paper it seems you find another incident where a big cat is on the loose in a residential neighborhood,'' Miller says.

This fall, three lions roaming the small town of Quitman, Ark., about 50 miles north of Little Rock, were in bad shape. The owner of a nearby game reserve, which has gone out of business, denied the animals were his. Somebody else had released them, he claimed. Each lion eventually was shot and killed.

Lisa Vaughan says a big cat ambled across the road onto a neighbor's lawn. ''My husband ended up having to shoot one of them,'' she says. ''We hated to do that. But the animal was so run down, and they are dangerous. It was a sad situation.''

Steve Olson, director of government affairs for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, says his group, whose 200 members include the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., supports Miller's measure in Congress.

But Olson points out that the bill wouldn't give authorities the power to confiscate exotic animals. Nor would it prevent people from buying cats from breeders within their own state.

''The problem is going to be solved at the state level,'' Olson says.

There is opposition to an outright ban on individual ownership of exotic animals. Patti Strand, president of the National Animal Interest Alliance, says people with the expertise and means to care for big cats should be allowed to keep them.

''The last thing our group would want would be unskilled, unqualified people to get ahold of wild, exotic animals,'' Strand says. ''The window of opportunities to own these animals should be small, but it shouldn't be shut.''

Jimmy Lolli says he's not fond of federal regulation on animals either. At the Lolli Brothers Auction Co. in Macon, Mo., you can buy most everything from an ape to a zebra. But forget about big cats, Lolli says.

Lolli, whose family has been dealing animals since 1947, says regulation of big cats might be warranted.

''We used to sell a few of them, but we got so much bad publicity,'' Lolli says. ''You buy a 25-pound cub, and next thing you know it's 400 pounds and eating you out of house and home.''

Miller says his proposal offers a measure of safety for people and the animals.

''There's also a very real concern about humane treatment of these animal,'' he says. ''They're either killed or turned over to animal control agencies.''

Tigers can quickly outgrow their welcome. A tiger can pack on 150 pound in a year and a half. It can reach 500 pounds when mature. It can also devour 20 pounds of meat each day.

Zoos typically are unwilling to accept big cats whose owners can no longer care for them.

A few of the fortunate end up at the Shambala Preserve, a sanctuary for big cats near Los Angeles operated by actress Tippi Hedren.

It's a menagerie of big cats down on their luck.

There's Leo, the lion who was found living in a basement in Branson, Mo. Kara, the leopard, lives in another enclosure after her rescue from a freezing garage in Wyoming.

Hedren, who gained fame in 1963 in the Alfred Hitchcock film The Birds, says she has always loved animals, big cats in particular.

She has about 60 animals at her preserve, which requires her to raise $1 million annually for maintenance.

She also knows how dangerous the animals can be. They have scratched her and her daughter, actress Melanie Griffith.

Hedren offers four words of advice for those considering a big cat as a pet: ''Do not do it.

''You buy this cute creature at 8 weeks old. After six months, it's torn your house apart and taken a good chunk out of you.

''Always remember: A 600-pound tiger will do what it wants, when it wants to.''



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