D A L L A S, Feb. 16, 2001 -- Like many Texans, Bill Rathburn is no longer satisfied with an ordinary pet. The former police chief of Dallas and his wife are the proud owners of three 600-pound tigers they have raised since they were born.
But why tigers? Why not a nice tabby cat?
"We have tigers because my wife went out and bought one without consulting with me," explains Rathburn.
With proper care, some tigers become lovable pets.
In a Fort Worth suburb, Lewis Dorfman has built a special sanctuary for his 22 tigers. He has even trained these tigers to remain tame. "These cats tend to mind me even though I use no discipline," he says. "No discipline at all."
In most areas of Texas, if you want to own a tiger, there is nothing to stop you. The state has no regulations when it comes to exotic animals. And federal laws do not apply because most of the Texas tigers are considered private pets.
"Unfortunately, you can buy a tiger for less than a thousand dollars," says Dorfman. "which pushes it right in the category of an impulse item for certain people."
After India, the state of Texas now has the world's second-largest tiger population: According to the best estimates, there are now more than 2,000 tigers living in the Lone Star state.
And the majority of them are kept as backyard pets. While some are in surroundings fit for a king, other tigers are kept in deplorable conditions.
"It makes you kind of sad and sickens you," says Mike Mulnus of the Houston City Sheriff's Department. "They can't speak for themselves, [yet] they have to live in this kind of filth."
Children at Risk
Texas police departments also have to deal with tigers on the run. Armed with tranquilizer guns, Harris County deputies recently had to track down a pair of missing Siberian Tigers.
The most tragic cases involve tigers and children.
"You can have 10 adults standing in front of the cage and one small child and the tigers will not take their eyes off that small child," describes Rathburn. "They really see children as prey, not as people."
One tiger, owned by 3-year-old Jayton Tidwell's uncle, bit off the boy's arm. "I stick my arm out in a cage and a tiger bit me," recalls Jayton. It took a team of doctors ten hours to reattach the arm.
In Yorktown, Texas, 10-year-old Lorin Villafana was in the cage with her stepfather when the tiger went for her neck and killed her.
Her biological father, Richard Villafana, sued the stepfather and is pleading with lawmakers to take action. "There is no reason a little girl is only 10 years old should die the way she died," says VIllafana.
Lawmakers are now considering legislation forcing tiger owners to build safer cages and carry liability insurance in order to make Texans treat their tigers more like wild animals and less like pets.