Lions and Tigers and Bears in the Backyard

ByABC News
October 25, 2006, 10:09 AM

Oct. 25, 2006 — -- Think you're an animal lover? Would you pay $200 to brush a tiger's extremely lethal teeth? Or pay $450 to let a 600-pound grizzly bear pluck a marshmallow from your lips? These opportunities might be closer to you than you think. They might be right there in your or your neighbor's backyard.

Across America, lions and tigers and bears are kept not in zoos but in private homes as pets and put on display in mom-and-pop backyard businesses where the paying public is invited to get up close and personal.

According to Michelle Thew of the Animal Protection Institute, 10,000 tigers are in private hands in this country right now.

"There are actually more tigers in private hands in the United States than there are in India," Thew said.

These once-endangered animals are being bred by the thousands, and in some cases end up places that experts say could make them potentially lethal to the public.

For 11 months, ABC News has investigated these backyard businesses, which, according to Thew, go under a "variety of different guises," such as "roadside zoo," "sanctuary," or "wildlife park."

And far too often, when dangerous circumstances arise, government agencies are seemingly unable to close these exhibitions.

In the course of our investigation, "20/20" found many cases where the public was put in harm's way and animals were mistreated.

"20/20" obtained footage of bear-wrestling in Ohio nightclubs and at county fairs; photos portraying a young baby inside a cage with a full-grown tiger; and footage of children at a roadside zoo who were given an early lesson in liability law: A bear handler told one child, "Our insurance company says 'no petting.' However, if you want to pet them, we're not liable, OK? And they will bite!"

Ron Tilson, one of the world's leading authorities on tigers, says these backyard "sanctuaries" prey on a public who wants the beauty but gets the beast.