A tiger that roamed the hills of Ventura County, Calif., for more than two weeks before authorities shot it dead -- just hundreds of yards from a soccer field where children were playing -- was the victim of whoever did not report his escape as much as he was of the bullet that killed him, officials and animal protection groups say.
With thousands of big cats living in people's homes and in private menageries across the country, this latest incident further dramatizes the dangers to people and the animals themselves when exotic animals are kept as pets, wildlife officials and animal protection groups agree.
It was not the way California authorities wanted their search to end.
"Obviously people are angry," said Lorna Bernard, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Fish and Game, which had been directing the search for the big cat. "Somebody owned this animal and has yet to come forward and take responsibility. I think the anger is more appropriately directed at whoever that person is."
It is illegal in California to have a tiger, lion or other big cat as a pet, but there are about two dozen rescue or exhibitor operations that have permits to have the animals, Fish and Game spokesman Troy Swauger said.
Investigators have "some leads" as to who might have owned the tiger, Bernard said, but refused to go into any detail.
"It is extremely unfortunate that the animal paid the price for its owner's carelessness," she said. "I find it puzzling that this person wouldn't have come forward, given the significant risk to public safety and to the animal. It seems that concern for the tiger's safety would outweigh any worry about getting in trouble."
The owner could have advised the trackers about the animal's character, about what it liked to eat, and whether it had been declawed or defanged, all of which would have helped them, Bernard said.
Approximately two weeks ago, Fish and Game removed about 20 animals, including several tigers, from a sanctuary near where the tiger was killed Wednesday, but Bernard said all the animals that were supposed to be at the sanctuary were accounted for.
Risk of Violence
Fish and Game trackers, aided by local police, had been trying to find the animal day and night for eight days, ever since they first heard reports that a big cat might be roaming around. Just Tuesday they learned that the animal had been on the loose at least 10 days longer than they had thought, when they received a photo of a track taken on Feb. 8 that matched others believed to have come from the animal.
They had tried to lure the animal with traps baited with stillborn calves and goat and chicken meat, but didn't catch sight of the animal until Wednesday, when it was nearing a playground and a housing development. The trackers made the decision to shoot the cat with a bullet rather than a tranquilizer because they feared it was too close to them and to other people.
"We felt that under the circumstances we could not risk having the animal bolt and harm someone," Bernard said. "Obviously, the longer it was roaming around, it was getting more hungry and more and more disoriented."
The fate of the tiger in Southern California was shared by a tiger named Bobo who escaped from his owner in Palm Beach County, Fla., last summer. Bobo was shot by police who thought the animal, roaming through a residential neighborhood, might be ready to attack.
"The people who are to blame are the people who are breeding big cats and selling them to the public," said Michael Markarian, a vice president of the Humane Society of the United States and president of the Fund for Animals. "Nobody wants to see an animal shot or killed, but unfortunately there aren't many options."
The number of privately held big cats like tigers and lions is staggering. Markarian said the HSUS estimates there are as many as 10,000 in homes and private compounds. The Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition estimates there may be twice that number, with as many as 7,000 tigers alone.
Both groups agree that many of those animals are held by private exhibitors, but others are kept as pets.
The numbers are hard to nail down because most states do not regulate possession of exotic pets, and many of those that do, such as California, require only that a person get a permit, but that permit does not limit the number of animals they can have.
And a permit does not mean that animals are well cared for, Markarian and CWAPC spokeswoman Kim Haddad agreed.
Science or Politics?
John Weinhart, for example, had 75 tigers, leopards, lions and other cats living at his Colton, Calif., operation when he was raided by Fish and Game officers in 2003. Weinhart, who had a U.S. Department of Agriculture permit to have the animals, also had 90 dead adult tigers and 58 dead tiger cubs in a freezer.
He was convicted Tuesday of 56 counts of animal abuse, including 14 felonies. His sentencing is scheduled for March 22.
That case does not represent the vast majority of situations in which big cats or other animals are privately held, and Pat Hoctor, of Animal Finders Guide, a publication for the exotic animal trade, said private owners too often get a bad name from groups like HSUS and state officials.
"Why would you think that a municipality would be any better prepared to do anything than a private citizen?" said Hoctor, who said he has owned 40 big cats himself.
He said the industry is already sufficiently regulated and said the issues raised by groups like HSUS may be more about a political world view than about science.
"Whether it's riding a motorcycle, a seat belt in your car or owning guns, when the liberals all have us in a bubble somewhere, will they be happy?" he said.
Tigers 'a Dime a Dozen'
There are other issues involved, though, according to the animal protection groups. The Fund for Animals cared for 54 adult tigers, leopards and lions that were found at Weinhart's Tiger Rescue, and had trouble finding homes for them in zoos or sanctuaries, Markarian said.
"There just aren't many places to take these animals," he said. "All sanctuaries and reputable zoos are filled to capacity because these animals are a dime a dozen in this country."
That might seem strange -- and even an argument for encouraging the trade in exotic animals -- considering that their numbers are dwindling in the wild. But Markarian said that is not the case.
"These animals are not pure genetically," he said. "They are different species of tigers who have been mixed for the pet trade. These things are essentially mutts and they're not valuable for conservation purposes."
The big cat that was found living in a New York City apartment in 2003, for example, was found to be a mix of Bengal and Siberian tigers.
The discovery of that animal so shocked New York that the state Legislature quickly passed a law making it illegal to own a big cat, but there are still 30 states where it is legal, and the only federal law related to such animals is a ban on interstate trade.
CWAPC focuses on trying to get legislation passed to further restrict private ownership of big cats and other exotic animals. The group keeps track of incidents involving exotic pets, and their statistics show the dangers to both humans and the animals themselves.
Over the past year, the group has recorded the deaths of 15 big cats and the escape of 29 from private owners. In the same time, one person was killed and 16 others were injured in run-ins with the animals.
"People see baby tigers with bottles in their mouths and they get this perception that these animals can be tamed," Haddad said. "They think they'll take a tiger cub, put a bottle in its mouth and tame it."
And for people who look at a lion or tiger and see a big house cat, she says they may not be too far off the mark.
"Cats are unpredictable, they're very smart and they reach a point when they explode. If they get mad at you, they go into fight mode," she said. "Imagine the power a little 12-pound cat has and multiply that by the weight a tiger has."
Hoctor, though, said such figures are overblown.
"There's been more people killed by Jersey bulls than ever by lions or tigers and we keep them behind three strings of barbed wire," he said.