Never Trust A Tiger

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If you live in the Drew Hamilton Houses in Harlem, you learn to mind your own business. The run-down brick towers and surrounding streets are plagued with crime. Meddle in someone else's affairs and you never know what might happen. So when Valerie Tompkins opened her windows one day last summer and breathed in the foul stench of urine, she was not inclined to investigate. She knew that her upstairs neighbor, Antoine Yates, 37, kept exotic pets, but why ask for trouble? She just closed the window again. Darryl Carter, whose girlfriend lives down the hall from Yates, knew about the pets too. "He just loved animals," Carter told TIME last week. "He had a book full of pictures of the animals he owned. He had, like, alligators and snakes and pit bulls."

But Carter and most of Yates' other neighbors did not know about Ming. Even in a city in which residents pride themselves on taking things in stride, a 425-lb. tiger in a fifth-floor apartment is a bit much. "How the hell did he keep it around here so damn long?" wonders Theodore Dixon, another neighbor. "What if he'd opened the door and it ran out? There are kids in this building. It probably would have bit them." In the end, it was Yates who was bitten, and although he first claimed that he had been attacked by a pit bull, someone tipped the police off to the real story. A cop eventually rappelled down the outside of the building, shot the tiger with a tranquilizer dart and ended the crisis. "This," police commissioner Ray Kelly told reporters, "is an only-in-New-York story."

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Jan. 17, 2004

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Except that it isn't. This month brought three tiger attacks in less than a week: on Yates; on Las Vegas showman Roy Horn, 59, who was mauled within an inch of his life before an audience of 1,500 at the Mirage hotel; and on Sarah Roy, 21, a trainer at the Keepers of the Wild animal sanctuary in Golden Valley, Ariz. While it might sound like a bizarre coincidence, the fact is that tiger attacks are not all that rare in the U.S. Between 1998 and 2001, according to a study by Philip Nyhus of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., there were no fewer than seven fatal tiger attacks and at least 20 more that required emergency care. Since 1999, two children — a girl, 10, and a boy, 3--have died in the jaws of pet tigers in Texas alone.

These numbers are not all that surprising, considering that there may be as many as 10,000 tigers in private hands in the U.S., many of them kept as pets. That is twice the estimated 5,000 or so left in the wild. In addition, Americans keep many thousands of other big cats, primarily lions and cougars. People own big cats for all sorts of reasons. Machismo is one: a tiger makes the nastiest Doberman seem like a yipping Chihuahua. Some people believe owning a tiger helps preserve an endangered species. And a tiger cub, at least, is downright adorable — until it grows up.

It is also ridiculously easy to get your hands on one. The Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species make it illegal to import a wild tiger. But there is no need to import one, says Nicole Paquette, legal-affairs director for the Animal Protection Institute in Sacramento, Calif.: "Tigers reproduce easily, and there are plenty of backyard breeders producing cubs. They're like puppy mills." Anyone who wants a tiger can go to an alternative-livestock auction. Or if that is too much trouble, they can just surf the Web, where large-scale breeding operations and mom-and-pop outfits advertise cubs for as little as $300. "A tiger," says Paquette, "can be significantly cheaper than a purebred dog."

And in lots of places, it is perfectly legal to own a tiger as a pet. If you put it on display, you would need a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture plus any that are required in that state. But no federal law prevents you from having a pet tiger, and only 20 states forbid big-cat ownership entirely (though many cities, including New York, do have local bans). A bill before the U.S. Senate would ban interstate and foreign commerce in big cats, except for circuses, zoos and other facilities like wildlife sanctuaries. But even that would not prohibit private ownership.

The danger to owners and their neighbors is one obvious drawback to keeping a tiger at home. "No matter how tame a tiger might seem, it isn't tame," says Richard Lattis, director of New York City's Bronx Zoo. "Dogs and cats have been bred for thousands of years to live with humans. Tigers haven't. They're wild animals."

People who perform with tigers constantly assert dominance over the animals, and that can create a backlash. For that reason, says Paquette, it is surprising that Roy Horn and his partner, Siegfried Fischbacher, have not been attacked before. "A tiger, especially one under stress, is a time bomb waiting to go off."

Odds are that a captive tiger is under stress much of the time. Even top-notch zoos and shelters cannot give big cats the huge range they have evolved, over millions of years, to need. Under such artificial conditions, one false move can provoke an attack. Sarah Roy, for example, tried to pet Tigger, the Arizona tiger, when it approached her during a foray into the animal's cage. She is now recovering from leg wounds but plans to return to work.

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