Pet big cat buyers buy trouble the world over
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2000:
HOUSTON, CALCUTTA–– The growing proliferation of poorly housed, understimulated, and often underfed big cats in private hands was spotlighted yet again at a child’s expense on March 15 in the Channelview district of Houston.
Jayton Tidwell, 4, wandered outdoors unseen during a family reunion and apparently tried to pet his uncle Larry Tidwell’s pet tiger. The tiger bit young Tidwell’s arm off at the elbow. Neurosurgeon Mark Henry reattached the arm and waived his fees, but the medical costs are still expected to exceed $500,000.
The tiger remained on the premises, haphazardly “quarantined” under a blue plastic tarpaulin.
The incident was heavily publicized for several days, but went unmentioned in national coverage of a March 29 press conference in Washington D.C. called by actresses Bo Derek, Melanie Griffith, and Tippi Hedren to promote “The Shambala Wild Animal Protection Act of 2000.”
Introduced by Representative Tom Lantos (D-California), the proposed legislation would amend the federal Animal Welfare Act to restrict private possession of any large carnivore.
“All three of the actresses have been mauled by lions,” noted Los Angeles Times staff writer Faye Fiore. “Hedren, who for 30 years has run the 60-acre Shambala sanctuary in Acton, California, has been attacked more than once. At age 19, Griffith [Hedren’s daughter] required 50 stitches in her face when a lion playfully jumped her. And Derek was bitten in the shoulder in 1981 during the filming of Tarzan, the Ape Man.”
But the Lantos bill is not expected to move out of committee during the current Congress.
Elsewhere around the U.S., large carnivores kept as pets were problematic as ever. St. Paul P i o n e e r P r e s s reporter Cara Labrie disclosed, for example, that in Martell, Wisconsin, unlicensed childcare provider Katie Peterson, 25, and her husband Jeremy, 26, had just added a 14-month-old Bengal tiger to a personal menagerie reportedly already including horses, llamas, exotic deer, and various fowl. Katie Peterson looks after three children per day, including her own four-yearold daughter, Labrie wrote.
In Raisin Township, Michigan, meanwhile, retiree Ken Martin on March 30 found a 14-month-old black bear in his garage. The bear belonged to Jamie Burdine, of Sand Creek, several towns away. Burdine bought the bear in Ohio on March 25, but he escaped from the barn where Burdine was keeping him less than 48 hours later.
Keeping track of incidents involving big cats kept as pets since 1982, ANIMAL PEOPLE e d i t o r Merritt Clifton through 1992 had logged just 11 attacks or escapes posing imminent risk to humans, but has logged 345 since, for a total of 356.
The number of potentially life-threatening incidents has risen each year. There were 53 such incidents in 1999, involving 44 animals, eight of whom got into trouble more than once:
Animals Total 1999
African lion 121 9
Tiger 77 17
Puma 69 10
Bobcat 27 3
Liger 21 0
Other 30 5
ALL CASES 345 44
1999 also brought two failures of private sanctuaries, involving the pending displacement of at least 42 tigers and half a dozen big cats of other species. Another 60 big cats who were expected to have been displaced now appear to be secure where they are.
The problem is not unique to the U.S. From India, on the far side of the world, ANIMAL PEOPLE received accounts of 52 life-threatening incidents involving leopards and panthers during 1998 and 1999. Sixteen of them resulted in human fatalities.
Those were just a fraction of the many cases reported by Debu Bhattacharyya in the January 2000 edition of E x c a l i b u r, the magazine of Compassionate Crusaders in Calcutta. In the Jalpaiguri and Alipurdar regions alone, Bhattacharyya found, 173 people were killed by leopards and panthers between April 1 and November 30, 1999. Residents of six villages reported seeing leopards or panthers on three days out of every four.
As in the U.S. when pumas attack people, Indian authorities tend to attribute the incidents to the big cats becoming emboldened by lack of hunting; coming into increasing contact with people as humans invade former wildlife habitat; and developing a taste for easier-to-catch urban animals instead of speedy hooved wildlife.
In India, the most abundant street prey are free-roaming dogs. But roving street dogs have until recently been considered the first line of community defense against big cats.
However, many Indian big cats are demonstrating unprecedentedly tame behavior, like the panther who watched a wildlife video with the fouryear-old son of Bimla Devi in Pnachkula village, near Chandigarh, in October 1998; the leopard who hopped into Prem Mehra’s bathtub on January 2, 1999, at Faridabad; the panther who went two days without food after falling into a well in mid-March 1999 at Udayanpuli village, Tamil Nadu, but only played with a dog whom wildlife officials offered as food while they arranged to pull the panther out; and the leopard who entered St. Christine Church in Pune on December 3, 2000.
ANIMAL PEOPLE h a s argued since 1996 that similar behavior on the part of many pumas involved in recent U.S. incidents indicates that the pumas were released from captivity as pets, after becoming too big for private owners to handle.
Bhattacharyya made the same case for leopards and panthers in India. He argued that leopard cubs, in particular, are often captured as “orphans”––as they may well be, due to poaching–– and are then clandestinely sold by corrupt wildlife officials.
Later the cubs may be released, either by their buyers or after being seized as contraband.
However, Bhattacharyya continued, the young leopards have typically never learned from their mothers how to hunt wild prey, so resort to hunting livestock, dogs, and people.
In the U.S., “puma panic” on March 31 induced Washington state governor Gary Locke to sign into law a partial repeal of the 1996 ban on hunting pumas with dogs which was approved by 63% of the electorate. The new law allows the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to sell permits to hunters to “cull” pumas with the use of dogs, whenever the department decides the puma population should be reduced.
In India, concern over panther and leopard attacks frequently results in wildlife officials killing all the adult panthers and leopards they can find in the vicinity––which enables them to then pick up and allegedly sell even more orphaned cubs.