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.