Those cute tiger cubs that pose with smiling children for photos at shopping malls and county fairs across the country are all the rage, but the cubs lose their value when they grow big enough to hurt somebody.
Then they become discards, sometimes sold for as little as $200 at garage sales and truck stops to make room for new cubs that bring $25 a pop in front of the camera.
"You have this continuing influx of tigers that have no place to go," said Tom Solin, a private investigator of wildcat injuries and deaths, who thinks the popular and lucrative photo fad explains the source of so many tigers.
No one seems to know for sure how many tigers, lions and other big cats live in Minnesota, but the danger is evident. The recent fatal mauling of a Pine County woman, who worked extensively with tigers, raises new concerns about the effectiveness of a 16-month-old state law that was intended to regulate the ownership of tigers, lions and other exotic cats. Neither that law nor a patchwork of municipal ordinances makes clear how many people own dangerous animals.
The most recent victim, Cynthia Gamble, held an exhibitor’s license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) but didn’t register her three tigers as the state law required.
"A lot of people in Minnesota ask, ‘Why do these people have to have these exotic animals anyway?’ " said Lakeville Police Chief Steve Strachan.
He sponsored the 2004 state law when he was a member of the Minnesota House. "We’ve got a couple of instances where they’ve killed and crippled people right here in our state."
As attacks continue, cities and counties react with ordinances that in most cases ban wildcats altogether. Woodbury last week joined at least 78 other Minnesota cities forbidding such animals unless traveling with circuses. Days after Gamble’s death, Sherburne County voted for a permanent ban. Goodhue County banned wildcats in recent months after a court battle with an exotic animal owner.
There’s no such ordinance in the works in Pine County. Gamble was a business owner and "unfortunately there have been people hurt in their line of work," said Board Chairman Greg Bennett.
Gamble’s USDA license permitted her to show animals in public places. Her cousin, Kendra Lojio, said she watched Gamble at renaissance festivals in Georgia, where Gamble "captivated the audiences, stressing how important it was to preserve their animals and appreciate their role in the wild."
However, the mother of a girl injured five years ago in a tiger attack at Bearcat Hollow in Racine, Minn., said that such appearances fool people.
"There is no legitimate market for these animals," said Mary Hartman of Rochester, who hired Solin to investigate her daughter’s case, "so they take them to the mall to create the illusion that you’re getting a piece of the wild."
In the summer of 1998, a mother and five children posed with a tiger at the North Dakota State Fair in Minot and 5-year-old Anthony Gottus was clawed. He needed plastic surgery and underwent rabies testing. Medical bills ran about $20,000, which the tiger’s owner, the Bridgeport Nature Center in Texas, agreed to pay along with various fines.
"People are doing photo shoots all over the country," said Nicole Paquette, an attorney for the Animal Protection Institute in Washington, D.C. Such endeavors are illegal because federal law prohibits public contact with exotic animals such as tigers and lions, she said.
Two other tigers that Gamble owned went to the Wildcat Sanctuary, a refuge for abandoned wildcats that moved to Pine County a few weeks ago. They are in "questionable physical condition" and "traumatized," said sanctuary spokeswoman Gail Plewacki.
Gamble’s business, formerly known as the Center for Endangered Cats, moved from Hugo and then Forest Lake Township after concerns about the large cats. A leopard of Gamble’s bit a boy at a Bloomington school event in 1996.
In 2003, answering a complaint of animal neglect, Pine County deputies found a tiger dead in a freezer and starving wildcats on Gamble’s property, said Chief Deputy Steve Ovick. She had hired a caretaker to tend to the animals while she was in Oregon, he said. "He left the cats with no food, no nothing," Ovick said.
A healthy black market
Keith Streff, an investigator with the Humane Society of Golden Valley, said that although state law banned the purchase of big cats in Minnesota as of Jan. 1, 2005, the black market flourishes.
Since the state exotic animal law took effect, only 16 owners have registered a total of 44 wildcats and three bears and 46 primates, according to records at the state Board of Animal Health. Those numbers don’t specify how many of those wildcats are tigers and lions.
"Are all the animals registered? I seriously doubt it," said veterinarian Kris Petrini, the board’s assistant director. She said the state law is a start toward ensuring public safety, even though it leaves questions.
Solin, a former chief of special operations at Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, said public safety suffers in the confusion over tigers. He said that the USDA is the primary licensing agency but that its emphasis is on animal care, not whether a tiger is suitably restrained.
The USDA inspected Gamble’s property two weeks before she died, spokesman Darby Holliday said, but wouldn’t disclose details. He said exhibitor’s licenses go to owners showing animals for compensation.
Solin blames unscrupulous dealers and breeders of tigers who "dump them oftentimes on unsuspecting people. They have to be continually breeding litters to have tigers for these photo sessions."
Animal welfare advocate Nancy Minion of Woodbury, who helped draft the state law, is lobbying this spring to classify tigers and lions as "dangerous" and add harsher penalties.
Kevin Giles • 612-673-7707
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457
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