After a decades-long battle, a big-cat aficionado apparently lost hold of his menagerie on Thursday when Mexican authorities seized eight tigers and two jaguars.
Jose Juarez Gil, who calls himself “Pepe Tiger,” has been battling allegations from private and government groups that animals suffered under his care from inadequate food, space and veterinary care.
The cats “did not have dignified or respectful treatment, and the conditions they were being held in were unsafe,” the Attorney General’s Office for environmental protection said in a statement.
It did not say what the unsafe conditions were, but in November one of the tigers escaped its cage and mauled a man, who later recovered.
The office said the seized animals would be transferred to “places where they can be guaranteed dignified and respectful treatment, as well as medical care and food,” but it did not say specify where.
Some of the animal containers seen at the scene of the raid bore labels from a private zoo in central Mexico.
“The cats will be given a thorough medical evaluation during their handling, confinement and transport,” the Attorney General’s Office added.
Juarez Gil claimed the government violated a court restraining order allowing him to keep the animals, which he calls “my children.” He claims the raid was part of a plan to grab the land on which his impromptu zoo sits on the outskirts of the Caribbean resort of Cancun.
“They jumped the fences and broke open the locks. They began sedating the animals and loading them into cages,” Juarez Gil said. “They took them to central Mexico in trucks, in the sun, with all this heat.”
“If the tigers arrive and they die, they are going to want to blame me, but the fact is they left here in good condition,” he said.
But Juarez Gil acknowledged that his two facilities were unattended at the time of the raid and that he was operating on a shoestring, feeding the cats whatever he could find. Just before the raid, he said, he had found a dead horse he was going to feed them.
He began collecting big cats in the 1980s, when police started turning over to him tigers and jaguars seized from the private zoos of drug traffickers and other criminals.
In the years since, shopping malls and luxury apartments have sprung up around his land on the outskirts of Cancun, but he has refused to give up his animals or sell his property.
He has acknowledged that some tigers died in his care, but said he would happily contribute the animals to a zoo in Cancun if authorities agreed to open one.
The dispute took on international dimensions after Hurricane Wilma hit Cancun in 2005, wrecking some of the animals’ enclosures. U.S. animal rights groups launched a campaign dubbed “Save the Cancun Tigers.”