Tiger owner sparks debate in Florida
HAVANA, Fla. – Gloria Johnson’s love for cats of all sizes has raised some eyebrows in north Florida.
The part-time lobbyist lives on 18 acres in a wooden house, where four house cats lounge inside on tiger-striped couches and rub their faces against leopard print curtains.
Outside, some larger cousins – two cougars and a Siberian tiger_ have found a home in Johnson’s backyard. And though some animal advocates want to outlaw her exotic pets, Johnson has vowed to battle, well, tooth and claw.
“I will fight it to the death,” she said. When she’s not at the Capitol in nearby Tallahassee, Johnson is in her backyard, feeding, playing and swimming with Ashukalee and Lakota, her 130-pound cougars, and Casanova, her 200-pound tiger.
Johnson’s not the only Floridian with a taste for unusual pets. Florida’s sunny climate makes it an attractive home for many exotic species, said Linda Harrison, a captain with the state’s wildlife commission.
Florida’s 150 big-animal owners, who sell and exhibit beasts like bears, lions and tigers, have to complete 1,000 hours of training. Another 400 are licensed for medium-sized animals, like cougars, bobcats and wolves, and 3,000 Floridians own exotic pets like chinchillas and ferrets.
Johnson said she trusts her big cats – last month, friends and neighbors joined Johnson for Casanova’s birthday party, complete with liver cake and ice cream. Johnson stayed in the tiger’s balloon-covered cage, clapping and cheering him on as he ripped at wrapped gifts, tearing into a new blue football, puncturing it within minutes.
“I’m not worried at all,” said Elizabeth Draper, a friend who brought her 9-year-old son, Chris, to the party. “I feel totally safe. As long as she knows what she’s doing and she’s licensed, as long as she takes care of them,” it’s no problem.
Chris spent the party a few feet away from the cage’s outer wall. He said he might want a tiger of his own one day.
“He’s kind of fun to watch,” he said.
But not all big cat owners have been as lucky as Johnson: two years ago, a 600-pound tiger named Bobo was shot and killed after he escaped from his South Florida owner, an actor who once played Tarzan. The same year, another 350-pounder injured his handler after being startled by a boy at a Jacksonville fair.
When these cats make news, they also make some Floridians wonder: Why own an animal that can eat you?
Johnson explained: “They give you something that people can’t – they give you unconditional love. The bonding with a wild animal is something you can’t explain. It’s like a religious experience.”
But other animal advocates say Johnson’s behavior – for example, cuddling and sometimes sleeping with big cats in their cages – sends the wrong message that wild animals make good pets.
“When people see an image of somebody stroking a big cat or walking a big cat on a leash, their immediate reaction is ‘I want to do that,'” said Carole Baskin, who runs the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Tampa.
“They’re not thinking about the fact that they could lose the arm or that the animal is living in captivity,” Baskin said. “They’re thinking about what they want, they’re thinking about that connection.”
Baskin tried during this year’s legislative session to introduce a ban on keeping big cats as pets in Florida, but failed. Now, backed by the nonprofit U.S. Humane Society, she’s promised to try again next year.
So far, 23 states – including Maryland this year – have banned private pet owners from keeping big cats.
“We’re trying to stop the perpetuation of breeding cats for life in cages,” she said.
She described a harmful cycle: Floridians buy big cats and abandon them when they grow too large or wild. When exhibitors and pet owners show those cats, others want a similar experience and encourage more breeding and selling.
In fact, Baskin, a former breeder herself, said she saw the light when her clients couldn’t handle their cats and started abandoning them. Right now, 150 felines live in her sanctuary.
“It’s very sad for the cats, because in almost every case they’ve been bottle-raised by a human, that’s the only person they’ve bonded to,” she said. “They’re ripped out of that situation once that person can’t handle them anymore and having to live in a cage for the next 20 years.”
Baskin said cage life can harms cats, causing them to pace frantically or neurotically groom themselves so frequently that they lick off all their fur.
But Johnson says she’s made a lifetime commitment to her cats, caring for them as she would her own children – she expects them to live 20 years and is ready to spend whatever is necessary to keep all three. (Note that by 2010 Gloria had abandoned her cats rather than post an insurance bond to protect the public.)
Johnson also said her cats help her teach Floridians about wildlife and the environment. Her relationship with Ashukalee, Lakota and Casanova won’t change any time soon – and that’s her prerogative.
“If you’re an adult, and you want to do something risky like sky dive or bunjee jump…that’s ridiculously dangerous to me.” she said, “But I don’t ban your right to do it.”
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