Big cat owners flock to Missouri because of lax laws

COLUMBIA – It may seem fun to catch a picture with an exotic animal, but what happens when that animal catches you?

Two years ago Haley Hilderbrand was posing for her senior photos with tiger cubs at an animal sanctuary in Kansas. Because the cubs weren’t cooperating, Haley had to take a picture with an adult tiger instead. Suddenly, the tiger turned and attacked Haley, killing her. In response, Kansas passed Haley’s Law, banning the ownership of dangerous exotic animals.

Missouri holds no such regulations and almost anyone in the state can keep an exotic animal captive. The department of conservation does have regulations on native wildlife of Missouri, such as bobcats. But currently only the USDA regulates any exotic wildlife in the state. Senator Jolie Justus of Kansas City is proposing the Large Carnivore Act–an act that will tighten regulations with lions, tigers, and bears.

“We don’t want to be one of the states where a tragedy happens and then we have to react. I’d rather us be a state that is proactive and prevent future tragedies,” said Justus.

“It is becoming a bigger problem because all of the states bordering Missouri have passed laws regulating the ownership and the sale and the breeding of these animals. Because of that, Missouri is becoming a safe-haven for people who want to own these animals unregulated,” Justus said.

An unregulated photo-for-money operation is what led to Sully the Tiger’s downfall. As a cub, Sully traveled to fairs and carnivals, where people paid as much as $25 to have their picture taken with him.

Last month, he was put to sleep after MU doctors attempted to correct bone deformities caused by malnourishment.

“Everyone at Mizzou and Columbia loves these tigers, and yet they don’t necessarily realize that the tiger cubs that they see for photo opportunities or whatever are in the same situation,” said Laura Dotson, president of Tigers for Tigers.

D-D Farm, a Columbia animal shelter run by Debbie and Dale Tolentino, attempts to save some of these animals before they reach Sully’s fate.

“They get to be 75 pounds or six months old, they dump them, they sell them to hunts, they sell them for parts, they sell them to roadside zoos…Anywhere they can to get rid of them and they don’t care if they die,” Debbie said of careless exotic animal owners.

Until regulations do strengthen, Debbie Tolentino offers one piece of advice. “They are what they are, and you got to remember when you are around some of these animals they are essentially dangerous. They are big, they are strong, and they are tigers.”

Justus says her bill is not a priority for this legislature and she will have to try to gain momentum next session. And she’s afraid that only until tragedy happens, will the legislatures start to listen.

If you have a problem or concern you’d like us to investigate, give the Target 8 team a call at 573-884-6397, or email us at

To learn more about the Tolentinos, click on the exclusive link in the KOMU story toolbox.

Posted by: Jonathan Coffman
Reported by: Jay Scherder

Published: Tuesday, May 8, 2007 at 4:05 PM
Last Updated: Wednesday, May 9, 2007 at 1:24 AM 6d8321fc-c0a8-2f11-01bd-b4dbfcf35d54


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