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Don't Kill the Tigers! Go After the Idiots Who Keep Them as Pets!

Sanctuaries such as the Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge highlight the unexamined problem of big cats being kept as pets, to tragic effect.

In 1993, Brian Werner finished his Navy hitch and moved his family to a 25-acre tract in the piney woods of East Texas, where they lived in a small cabin, off the grid. At the same time, I was on my first career as a trial court judge sitting in Austin, a distance away that only people in western states will appreciate. Werner and I did not cross paths at the time, but I have reason to wish we had, and that reason involved a lawsuit.

A tiger had mauled a child. It appeared from the serious injuries that the child’s head had at one time been in the tiger’s mouth, or very close to it. Assuming that animals can form intent, if the tiger had intended to kill, it easily could have.

The tiger was not on trial, but rather the fool who kept it as a “pet” and let it run free around children. However, at the time of the incident, the tiger was impounded and put in the care of the Humane Society.

That organization is known for sheltering dogs and cats, but they are the go-to outfit when stuff happens involving animals. I remember they had taken charge of some starved horses in an awful animal-neglect case and a bunch of goats that had been impounded when a truck driver left them in the heat and they began to die.

Dogs and cats, sure. Horses and goats, maybe. But a tiger? They were relieved when the lawsuit was over. The owner was not going to get the tiger back, having been found irresponsible with the animal once.

So the plan was to euthanize the tiger.

Photo courtesy Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge

While not the tiger in question in this story, tigers such as Calvin are cast off as pets when they become too big and fierce to handle.

This rubbed me the wrong way. I had heard the evidence, and the tiger was not a particularly vicious animal. It was just a wild animal being treated like a big kitty by a stupid person. It was being a tiger.

I balked at signing the order. What, they asked me, did I propose to do with the tiger? The Humane Society was not a long-term option and the government was picking up the feeding bill. I agreed to work on the problem.

It did not take me very many phone calls to understand that zoos are not particularly interested in free tigers, unless the animals are one of the endangered subspecies, or so I was told at the time. I did, however, get the attention of people who care about big cats, and just about every phone call I made turned up several other numbers to try.

Photo courtesy Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge

Lexie, another resident of the Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge.

The process took months, during which I had to listen to periodic lectures about how I was being unreasonable, wasting taxpayer money, and generally being softheaded in a way unbecoming a judge. With the help of many concerned people, the tiger finally found a home, and I never had to sign the death warrant.

The Werner family in East Texas had, shortly after the time I was frantically hunting for a placement, begun taking in itinerant tigers that were no longer cute little cubs. In 1995, the Werners formed the Tiger Missing Link Foundation. Their purpose was to document the problem that had hit me in the face, tigers living outside of accredited zoos.

A couple of years later, they prevailed on the National Institutes of Health to take DNA samples from the tigers in their care. One of the castaways they were caring for turned out to be a rare and endangered Indochinese tiger. Those cats have been nearly wiped out by folklore about the medicinal properties of their bones and other parts. Tiger penises are said to be aphrodisiacs for humans.

Over the years, the Tiger Missing Link Foundation has upgraded and expanded what is now called Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge. It’s still located in the piney woods outside of Tyler, Texas, but there’s a bit more land. The tigers have been joined by lions and leopards to make up the immigrant population, plus a couple of native Texans—cougars and bobcats. In all, the refuge has taken in more than 35 big cats that have been, in the refuge’s words, “abused, neglected or displaced.”

Photo courtesy Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge

Over the years, the refuge has begun taking in other cats, such as Pepe and Scrunches, above.

Even after all these years, my run-in with a homeless tiger bothers me, so I was happy to find a home for tigers in Texas. Talking to a staffer at the refuge, I found—to my surprise—that all subspecies of Panthera tigris are endangered and listed as such in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty mentioned on these pages in the past in connection with quack medicine endangering bears and habitat loss endangering jaguars.

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Photo courtesy Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge

Cybil is another of the creatures brought into the refuge over the years.

There are thought to be only six subspecies of tiger left in the world, and only about 3,000 of the magnificent predators left in the wild, counting all the subspecies. A website dedicated to sale of “exotic animals,” Exotic Animals for Sale, claims that nine subspecies of tiger still exist, but three of them only barely. The same site goes on:

Tigers are surprisingly inexpensive and easy to purchase as pets. Meaning, anyone is capable of owning a large influential carnivore, whether they are properly equipped to care for them or not.

I only crossed paths with one other tiger in my legal career, one that was kept in too small a cage by a drug dealer, apparently for the purpose of intimidating the people with whom he did business. Because that case was federal, the tiger’s life was not in my hands.

Looking at the fate of the big cats generally, I have to remind myself that H. sapiens claims the right to dominate other species because we are smarter. Without commenting on the merits of that claim, it has become clear that people who want to share the Earth with big cats have a substantial education problem.

Right now, exotic animals are dependent on the goodwill and good sense of their owners. The federal Animal Welfare Act, enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, applies only to zoos, circuses and “marine mammal parks.” The law plainly does not cover drug dealers wanting to flaunt fierce house pets. More specifically, the law protects only critters that are exhibited to the public or used in research or teaching. The outfit I found here in Texas is regulated for all three reasons.

The Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge has internships for college students and educational programs for younger kids. They’re open for visitors six days a week. The DNA research continues, but after my experience with a “surplus” tiger, I know that keeping big cats is not cheap, so it’s really necessary to engage everybody who cares, not just the scientists.

In the early nineties, three things were going on at approximately the same time: I was hunting a way to avoid killing a big cat for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Brian Werner was beginning the project that would grow into Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge, and W3, a.k.a. the World Wide Web, was just getting started. (The first efficient browser, Mosaic, launched in 1993.)

My bizarre quest to rehome a tiger had to proceed by telephone rather than computer, but I had good luck. I would not have been in such dire need of luck if the timing had been slightly different and the Web could have pointed directly to the Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge.

Photo courtesy Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge

It's hard to imagine euthanizing a cat such as this, but discarded pets sometimes fall to this fate.