Lions and Tigers and Bears in the Backyard

ByABC News

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.

"They're naive, and they're being told in the presence of somebody who they think is an expert, this is an animal that I have complete control over," Tilson said.

But "control," said experts, is something you can't even get from a house cat, must less the big cats.

According to Dave Salmoni of Animal Planet, the term "tame" doesn't exist when it comes to animals. "There's no such thing as a tame wildcat."

Salmoni, a veteran trainer of wild cats, should know. Back in 1999, while Salmoni was hosting a live show from a Toronto zoo, a mild-mannered lion named Bongo suddenly attacked him.

"All the forearm muscles were torn out of my right arm. And my rib cage was bruised and cracked," Salmoni said.

According to Salmoni, in reality, primitive instinct trumps care and training every time.

"You believe they love you like you love them. And that's the best lesson to learn about these guys," Salmoni added. "They don't have the same feelings that we do. And they won't think twice if they come to kill you."

That harsh reality became all too true for one family from Altamont, Kan., last year. Seventeen-year-old Haley Hilderbrand went to pose with tigers for her senior photo at the Lost Creek Animal Sanctuary near her home. But in an instant, the situation turned tragic.

As Haley's mother, Ronda, recalled, "The tiger licked her foot or something. It startled her and she squealed. And she turned, screamed and turned to run. And when she turned to run, it lunged at her and attacked her and got her by the back of the neck."

Haley died that day. And the 550-pound Siberian tiger was killed during a futile attempt to rescue her.

Haley's parents were shocked to learn that their daughter wasn't the first person to be attacked.

In the past five years, there have been 50 documented attacks by lions and tigers in the United States.

"20/20" went undercover to visit another one of these backyard operations, the "Siberian Tiger Conservation Association" in Gambier, Ohio.

Despite the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had suspended and then revoked its exhibition license, "20/20" found the facility still open for business and willing to let paying visitors inside its cages for close encounters with lions and tigers -- under what the USDA has termed the "guise" of "educational training sessions."

"20/20" obtained footage of customers actually entering the cage and being encouraged to pet and hug the tigers. All seemed to be going well until, without warning, a tiger charged the man shooting the video, who suddenly found his leg between its jaws. Fortunately, the tiger let him go without breaking the skin.

Ten other people were not so lucky. That's how many people the were injured at this facility in one year, according to the USDA.

Haley Hilderbrand's parents are trying to make sure that what happened to their daughter never happens again. They have worked to get legislation enacted in their home state of Kansas that would restrict private ownership of big cats, and are now working on a national law, called "Haley's Act," that would strengthen the Animal Welfare Act.