Miami’s feline fringe is a vanishing breed
Tigers, Cougars, and More in the Back Yard
By Calvin Godfrey
Published: September 13, 2007
Alan Rigerman pokes his head out the door of his little gray house in Northwest Miami-Dade and emits a crackle of excited greetings. He is dressed, as always, in a black T-shirt and "sportive" khaki shorts; his hair is pasted to the side of his head with a heavy dose of hair spray.
When he steps inside, a black-and-white housecat named Oreo begins vying for attention — to no avail.
The darkened living room is neat but well-worn; signs of Rigerman can be found on every surface. A long bookshelf packed with antique scientific texts occupies one wall; a terrarium containing a pair of Gila monsters rests just behind his head. Eighteenth-century floral prints accompany a painting of a bare-chested brunette that his neighbor almost threw away. The top of his large wooden dining table is scarred with millions of tiny loops: the result of 40-plus years of incessant letter writing.
At age 64, Rigerman occupies a room like a small tornado: fussing and vacillating with all the vim of a supercharged Zero Mostel. He enjoyed a 35-year career as a
In a way, Rigerman offers everything that democracy is supposed to want in its citizens: hyperinvolvement, flawless attendance, and a kind of needling obsession with all things civic. He writes letters to the editor of every publication, small and large (including New Times), from
Lately someone has been hurtling jars of excrement through his front window. Three in all. Each has coincided with the appearance of a letter-to-the-editor. The last missile was housed in a cup from a nearby restaurant. "So I know it’s local," Rigerman says with hardly a trace of indignation. Whoever it was also threw a dead cat.
He prays for a "federal enema" to come down on the crooked Miami-Dade County Commission, and is titillated by the thought that iguanas have been granted the same kind of amnesty as Cuban immigrants. In November 2005 he ran an admittedly futile campaign against
Unholy yowls emanate from the rear of the house. On the way through his tidy kitchen, Rigerman picks up a package of raw chicken drumsticks. Oreo follows for a bit and then skedaddles as her master enters a concrete room where he stores feeder mice, cleaning supplies, and a pair of cougars. Half of the 20-by-30-foot space is walled off into two chainlink cells. A corridor runs between the enclosures, separating mother and son. If they were placed in the same cage, they would likely kill one another.
Rigerman begins pushing the drumsticks (six dollars’ worth) through spaces in the fencing. The cougars take them up in their mouths and make quick work of them with a single loud snap.
Chantell, lying on a large wooden shelf, regards Rigerman with a pair of beautiful, soft bronze eyes. Chaos, her son, paces furiously. His heavy shoulder muscles shift menacingly under his blond hide as he leaps from his shelf to the floor and back. Rigerman, feeling brave, places an air horn in his pocket "in case of emergency" and steps into the cage. He grabs a loose section of wire caging, which he holds up as a kind of shield.
He did not always need the extra protection, he says, but he now suffers from terrible spinal pain. He can’t tussle with his cats these days without some measure of caution. He pushes open the door as Chaos thrusts his giant head toward the opening, butting Rigerman in the shins.
The cat dives between his legs and begins pawing his ankles; though Chaos was declawed as a cub, he has visibly powerful jabs. "He’s a youngster," Rigerman says, trying to steady himself. "He hasn’t learned his manners yet." He shuffles away from Chaos, who darts behind him and leaps up on his owner’s back, placing both front paws on his shoulders. Rigerman jerks upright, in agony.
"No!" he barks, his voice echoing like an explosion off the walls. "Bad! Bad! Get back!" He bops Chaos on the head; the cat slinks away. "Does he actually know it’s bad? I don’t know, but he stops."
The moment passes like an eternity. For Rigerman, whose arms bear several bite marks and long scratches, this counts as a pleasant encounter. "Look how good he’s being," he says as the cat ecstatically runs his fur through Rigerman’s fingers.
Rigerman does not pretend to totally understand the animal and freely admits there is a chance it would maul him if he let it. It would not be a bad way to die, he muses.
Animal rights activists, alarmist neighbors, and the squeeze of increasingly tighter legislation have pushed
Over the past two decades, after a trio of child maulings (all associated with a single cat owner), the laws regulating the ownership of big cats got tougher. Beginning in 2000, Floridians applying to own lions, tigers, and leopards ("Class I" cats — the ones that roar) were required to own five acres surrounded by a bad-ass eight-foot fence. Owners of cougars, panthers, and clouded leopards ("Class II," or purring cats) were required to have two and a half acres — and a bad-ass fence.
Owners who bought their cats before the state involved itself in exotic pet ownership were grandfathered in. But the move marked the beginning of the end for the town’s cat keepers. "The limitation on acreage will preclude such animals from being kept in small residential neighborhoods where zoning and public safety conflicts are problematic," Col. Julie Jones, director of the law enforcement arm of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, wrote in a 2002 memo.
This past July, partly in response to growing hysteria about giant pythons in the
In 2004, Humane USA, an animal rights-oriented political action committee, posted on its Website a list of the names and addresses of all Floridians licensed "to display dangerous cats." Only 31 names are listed in
A half-dozen or so have moved away, lost their cats, or no longer keep them. Some are businesses or nonprofit "sanctuaries." Two work in zoos and don’t own cats as pets. Some names are redundant — owners and their businesses, husbands and wives. Those who remain comprise a handful of working stiffs (plumbers, schoolteachers, prison guards) and wealthy eccentrics.
The new legislation will likely ensure that the ownership of big cats will be limited to businesses, the wealthy, and the feckless — those who tend to buy the animals on a whim, only to discover they can’t take care of them. The Alan Rigermans of South Florida — thrifty and obsessed, the kind of people willing to own a pet that costs between $7 and $40 per day to feed, who are willing to forgo vacations and shell out thousands of dollars to exotic veterinarians — are becoming a thing of the past.
Elaine Berman acquired a black leopard in the late Eighties. The cat lived 24 years, in her
Organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have long battled the ownership of big cats. "There’s not an accredited zoo in the country that gives [big cats] the space they need," says PETA’s captive exotic animals specialist, Lisa Watheny, "much less a private owner." She suggests that the tighter regulations will mean a certain end for big-cat exhibitors.
"They’re a dying breed," says Lt. Pat Reynolds of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Dressed in a stained white undershirt and hiking boots, a beefy 20-year-old named Anthony Zitnick (a.k.a. AJ) walks through Rigerman’s front door and crashes in a heavy chair. One of several young men Rigerman allows to handle his cats, Zitnick navigates the house with the sour familiarity of a teenage son. His bleach-blond hair hangs down over his neck, and a thin mustache curls over his upper lip. Scars run up the outside of his forearms, vestiges of fisticuffs from his days at
"A lot of people thought it was suicidal," Zitnick says, rolling his eyes dramatically. "That’s how smart people at my high school were — that I had to dig through muscle and bone to reach veins on the other side."
He grew up around the block from Rigerman. About two years ago, following Hurricane Wilma, Zitnick began helping him clean up his house. Chaos was born a year later, and Zitnick started coming by to help rear the cub. Rigerman sometimes pays him eight dollars an hour, and seems happy for the company.
Zitnick rolls his eyes as Rigerman explains all of this; the young man seems impatient to get Chaos out. "He’s a good guy," Zitnick mutters as Rigerman walks into the next room. "He just talks a lot."
Once in the cage room, Rigerman suggests they take out Chantell. Zitnick rolls his eyes again. "When was the last time you did that?" he asks.
Rigerman gives no answer. "There’s no question that the best place for all these animals is in the wild," he says as Zitnick climbs into Chaos’s cage, armed with only a collar and a thick chain leash. "But man is such that he has been keeping these kinds of animals since the Christians were fed to the lions."
Zitnick’s approach to the cat involves a lot of chokeholds and half nelsons. He stealthily subdues the rambunctious cougar. "This is where a few years of high school wrestling pay off," says Zitnick, who is studying massage therapy in
The two men cut an odd figure as they drag the 200-pound carnivore across Rigerman’s sloping yard, past grazing tortoises, toward the calm canal water. Boats and back-yard playgrounds line the banks. Sometimes the cat charges forward; Zitnick baits him with a dried coconut.
Rigerman takes the thick chain from Zitnick and wades into the water with his feline. "This is what it’s all about," he says, grinning. The cat paddles clumsily around him, climbs onto his shoulders, and dunks him.
Zitnick helps Chaos back onto land and begins lathering his fur with Johnson’s baby shampoo while Rigerman bobs in the water, raving about the harmless inevitability of invasive species.
Zitnick guesses he’d someday like to own a cat — a tiger or a cougar. "They’re not … they’re fun to …," Zitnick pauses to think as he rubs suds along Chaos’s tail. "It’s not an everyday house pet…. I kinda do things out of the ordinary."
Eventually they tie Chaos to a stone anchor near the property line. The cat looks happy, at last, basking under a stubby palm tree, batting at the low-hanging fronds.
"You boys have a cat down there?" asks Rigerman’s neighbor Shelly Girling from inside her house. A pleasant-looking woman with quaffed red hair and a bright floral-print dress wanders to the edge of her yard.
Rigerman stumbles out of the water and encourages Girling to let her Dachshunds out. She decides against it, but leans over her fence and asks how the baby is. Chaos tosses mouthfuls of sod into the air and pounces on the gray coconut, sinking a massive canine into it, almost as an answer.
The scene takes on a Norman Rockwell quality. Fluffy white clouds slide across a deep blue Sunday sky, and Chaos begins to look more and more like a lovable fixture of the Rigerman household. Until it’s time to return him to his cage.
The cat does not want to go.
Zitnick uses all of his might to drag Chaos back, foot by foot, into his enclosure. At the door of the cage, Chaos leaps up onto Zitnick’s shoulders and opens his mouth, running his canines along the length of his arm like a puppy tongue. Zitnick reaches out both hands and seizes the cougar by the throat, lifting it off the ground. He steps a few feet into the cage and hurls it to the ground. It hits the concrete floor with a resounding thud and bounds back up just as Zitnick shuts the gate.
Rigerman, seemingly unable to resist, heads into Chantell’s cage. He barks and coos until she allows him to scratch her behind the ears. "See," he says. "She’s not going to hurt me. If she were going to hurt me, I would yell, scream, and punch the shit out of her in the face."
By dazzling the owner of a service station with a few exotic pets, Rigerman convinced the man to install a second horn in the trunk of his aging Toyota Corolla, free of charge.
Plodding slowly along the Dolphin Expressway on a recent hot weekday afternoon, his vehicle is almost as loud as he is. A baby alligator head sits on the dashboard amid a pile of plastic corn snakes. Rigerman employs the gator’s lacquered jaws as a caddy for a trio of spare eyeglasses.
"I wear the same thing every day," Rigerman explains between bursts of his horns. "So I like to change my glasses as often as possible."
Rigerman has decided to pay a visit to Ann, a longtime friend and cat expert, who asked that her last name not be printed for fear of animal rights "loonies." Her small green townhouse in Westchester is among the oldest in
Rigerman arrives unexpectedly and slowly works his way past the black steel door and into the apartment. Ann has spent about the past 20 years perfecting her house as a dual habitat — a cat-proof people pen. Orange short-pile carpet lines the floor, and a long, pillow-plotted couch juts out from the middle of the living room. All electronics, books, and cords are neatly tucked away — nothing extraneous or chewable is lying about. Occupying one corner of the living room is a large leopard-print bar surrounded by framed photographs of various cats: leopards, servals, and caracals.
The back patio had been converted into a sort of outdoor play area, enclosed on four sides by a black chainlink fence. Beyond the fence, a small canal separates Ann from a row of other houses. Occasionally they enjoy a full view of Ann’s three cats — though they rarely go outside.
"In wintertime they might go out and walk around for five minutes," she says. "But if I close the door, they’ll all three press their heads against the glass, looking at me like I’m the worst person in the world."
Rigerman sits down at the bar to await the arrival of the cats. He booms about Ann’s feline expertise.
Ann fusses. "They won’t come out because of his loud voice," she says. "I told you to cut out the cologne and hair spray."
"Do you have any idea how that makes me feel?" Rigerman asks sadly. "It makes me feel terrible."
(Rigerman promises to quiet down and spends the next hour on the phone trying to renew his subscription to an exotic animal catalogue.)
Ann rushes to the kitchen for a piece of turkey breast. She steps into her hallway, meat in hand, and implores her kitties to at least come say hello.
"You don’t want to at least say hello?"
"Oh, don’t hit me! You don’t want to come? You want to be nasty?"
Ann wears house slippers and a bright caftan. Her hair forms a perfect silver dome; bangs fall like a sheet of ice over her forehead. She smiles warmly and gestures in large sweeps of her head and arms. She walks with a slight limp — a symptom, she says, of never wanting to come into this world in the first place. The doctors had to yank her in with forceps, resulting in a small loss of motor control on her right side.
Ann had always wanted an exotic cat. She just never knew it was possible to own one. She grew up in
She moved into an eighth-floor apartment and lived with a roommate and three German shepherds. One day, while walking the dogs, she came upon a
"The ocelot just sat out on our terrace with no cage or anything," she recalls. "He used to play with the dogs and have a wonderful time."
One rainy summer, while visiting friends in
One day, while the system was down at work, she noticed in the Miami Herald an advertisement for baby cougars and other exotics. She dialed the number.
To her surprise, she discovered she would need a license for a big cat. To obtain a license, she would need 1000 hours of "husbandry" training in a 12-month period.
So she spent weekends volunteering at a veterinary clinic in
Finally, as she entered her late forties, Ann acquired an African serval named Pandora. She would take the cat for a six-month trial, she decided.
Pandora refused to be touched — a quirk she communicated by biting.
"She slept on top of me," Ann recalls, exasperated. "But if I woke up, I couldn’t touch her." In order to put the cat in its cage, Ann had to devise all manner of clever trapping and baiting techniques, involving everything from stuffed animals to canvas harnesses. The 30-pound feline would wake up in the middle of the night and drink its entire bottle of water just to pee on her.
Ann was hooked.
She equipped her spare room with high shelves, huge litter boxes, and a serval-size ladder. From then on she continued to take care of cats: raising exotic kittens, finding owners for unwanted cats, and, of course, tending to her own flock (four, at its peak).
Ann installed a Murphy bed in the cats’ room so she could sleep surrounded by the animals (a practice that ended about two years ago, when a serval named Tango taught the others how to leap onto her in the middle of the night).
Ann’s cats have all been servals or caracals (or combinations of the two). The animals look something like a cross between a cheetah and a housecat. In the wild their long legs help them search for prey by leaping over the high savanna grass. They have been known to jump more than 10 feet into the air to catch birds midflight. In Ann’s house, they have developed a taste for ground turkey, air conditioning, and television.
Ann has several brothers and sisters, but she considers her cats her family.
"I’ve called them my friends," she says. "I’ve called them my kids. But it’s really not the same as a normal domestic [cat] or a dog. The top of their list is certainly not pleasing you."
In 1992 Ann became ill. She couldn’t go to work for two months, she says. She was constantly exhausted and found herself unable to cope. After undergoing a battery of tests, she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. She recalls losing her short-term memory and running a low-grade fever for three years. Things are slightly better now, she says, but not by much. "If I didn’t have my cats," she says, "I’d be gone. They need someone to love them and feed them."
Rigerman rises and heads for the cat room. He meows loudly, and Ann’s cats stare down at him from their high perches, hissing and baring their teeth.
"I remember once I was here and the licking started," he says, staring fearlessly at the canines of Ann’s oldest cat, a pure caracal named Kira. "The licking turned to biting." The cat sank its teeth into Rigerman’s arm. He sat calmly and waited for it to retract them. "Ann was mortified. But I told her: ‘Ann what are you upset about?’"
Rigerman putters deep into the Redland, passing tree farms, fruit stands, and barren you-pick fields. The sun hangs low on the horizon as he inches his way, both horns blaring, down
He is happy to be back in this part of town, the place where his interest in owning cats was sparked. When he began teaching, he made a bond with a couple named Frank and Ellen Weed, who lived in a trailer out in the Glades. The two bred hundreds of cougars in what’s now
He recalls a visiting troop of Boy Scouts one day needling an aging Frank Weed with questions. "Mr. Weed," said one boy in an obnoxious voice, "why do you have all these animals?" Rigerman loved Weed’s response. "Because I want to and I can," the old man told him.
Whatever Rigerman owned, he brought to school. He was Mr. Rigerman, the oddball ecology teacher who disdained homework and reveled in field trips. "I love teaching," he says. "It’s fun. Where else can I get that kind of an audience?"
After giving it up, he began substitute teaching. That was cut short in 2003, following a melodramatic flareup in a photography class. Several students accused him of disappearing into the darkroom in the middle of class and returning to conduct the remainder of the session in his underwear. They alleged that he terrorized them with a sack full of snakes and lizards, and made lewd and lascivious comments: mocking a girl about the length of her skirt, suggesting he had slept with their teacher, and telling one student she was "fucking beautiful" for her age.
He thinks the accusations were drummed up by a group of pernicious girls. The animals were harmless. He says his "underwear" was, in fact, a pair of shorts.
Rigerman battled the charges, and in August 2005 he was reinstated to an eligible list of substitute teachers. "You are prohibited from bringing any animals to any school site at any time," wrote Maria Teresa Rojas, assistant superintendent.
Rigerman heads west on
These are where his animals will go when he dies, Rigerman guesses.
Beyond the fence, flocks of emus graze on a large meadow. A massive bison idles up to a parked swamp buggy and begins scratching itself against the chassis.
Set back from the mass of wildlife is a large gray house.
Rigerman slowly rolls up a dirt road and settles at a sort of shed piled with the makings of a great Tom Waits song. Tractors and huge circus cages sit amid a clutter of engine parts beneath a wooden overhang adorned with cow skulls. A trio of mean pythons captured from the swamps sit idly in cages.
A broad-shouldered man with red skin and a trim black beard appears out of the distance. A thick, slobbery guard dog trots along at his side. The figure smiles and nods at Rigerman. This is his land, and his name is Frank Pajon.
Pajon came to the States from
In 1973, at age 13, he moved to
Pajon had already taken care of a serval at that point, but Tabraue was into big animals. He hung out at Tabraue’s business as often as possible and developed an eye for tigers and cougars. To Pajon, Tabraue was an animal guru — someone who loved and knew a lot about exotics. Pajon would not comment about Tabraue’s legal trouble, but according to a Miami Herald article, he was busted in 1987 on racketeering charges (which included dismembering and burning the body of a federal informant). It was around that time when Pajon decided to get his license to own cats.
(Tabraue served 12 years of a 100-year sentence and has since resumed his import business on a compound in the Redland. He declined, through intermediaries, to be interviewed for this story.)
Pajon began keeping and breeding cougars. About five years ago he bought the adjoining lot and cleared the land. He put up eight-foot posts and wired them with electric fencing — all for the sake of lions and tigers. A year later he got his Class I license and purchased a pair of six-month-old tigers.
Pajon provides a brief tour of his menagerie as chickens skitter about his feet. Beyond a sliding gate, a mishmash of
The place looks like a strange slice of Xanadu, a sort of rough-cut exotic dreamscape dotted with the occasional palm tree. Though Pajon’s place is located in Miami-Dade, it seems a planet away from the chintzy boardwalks, seedy ghettos, and cookie-cutter suburbs that define
Pajon has made himself a paradise, or at least he’s working on it.
He wanders over to a female lion named Nala. "That’s Alan spelled backwards," Rigerman chimes in from over Pajon’s shoulder.
"It’s also the name from the Lion King," Pajon replies.
Rigerman purchased the baby lion last summer — he maintains a Class I license, but only for infants — and turned it over to Pajon after three months.
The cat’s fur is matted; it looks exhausted. Pajon recently dropped close to $1000 treating the lion for toxoplasmosis, a parasite typically found in domestic cat poop. Nala is slow, Pajon says, from the medicine.
Stray cats have been traipsing on his property and might have contaminated the lion’s food. At the advice of county police, Pajon and his rifle keep a lookout for roving feral packs of the town’s unwanted pets.
Next Pajon crosses to Sinbad, a 600-pound Siberian male tiger. He’s being held in a temporary cage, cobbled together out of a section of white tile flooring and chainlink fence. The Siberian (the largest cat in the world) lumbers toward the fence as Pajon nears, stroking itself against the metal weave as if the links were the fingers of a benevolent giant.
Pajon walks deeper into his property, past a wolf in a circular enclosure to a huge oblong cage where his most precious creature is kept: Umba, a 400-pound female
"I try to sit with her for at least a half an hour a day," he says, gazing at the deep orange lines that slither and slide over her massive sides.
He has never trained her to perform, he says. "If you train them to perform, you can’t touch them," he says. "You have to use the whip." Though he has spent as much time with Umba as possible and accustomed her to walking on a leash, Pajon attributes her pleasant nature to the luck of the draw.
He ducks through the outer door and into her cage without hesitation. While he shovels out some unwanted bones and droppings, Pajon turns his back to Umba.
"I trust her completely," he says, taking her head in his hands and placing a heavy chain leash around her neck. He walks her like a big dog, muttering "leave it" out of the side of his mouth as she eyes a passing chicken or a cage full of yapping Dachshunds. Pajon proudly leads his tiger up onto the bed of his pickup truck and back down. He wraps his arms around her neck and squeezes — a tremendous, sphincter-puckering hug.
Pajon makes a living as a corrections officer, often working double shifts in the Miami-Dade jail system. He might begin at 4:30 a.m. and end at 9:00 p.m. On a good day, however, he will get home at noon and spend quality time with his animals.
He has brought the tigers on Sábado Gigante and to photo shoots in an effort to offset the cost of the upkeep. He and Rigerman plotted a recent event at Club Space, to exhibit the tigers in cages outside to net a windfall of $5000, but the deal was broken when animal rights activists got hold of the flyers, lobbied city officials, and hounded the club owners. Rigerman offered to show up with his porcupine and a few snakes, free of charge. But the club turned him down.
As Pajon leads Umba back into her cage, he regards the grounds with a squint. "If it was up to me," he says, "I’d get a baby elephant. Boy, if I hit the Lotto…."
The sunset is casting strange light onto the animals in Pajon’s back yard. His helpers have all headed home by now. Rigerman wheels out the front gate. Before darkness settles, Pajon will release a trailer full of guard dogs to roam the property.
Rigerman is happy to know Pajon is around. At his age, Rigerman says, he couldn’t buy anything new without knowing he had a place they could go. "And that’s Frank," he says.
Meanwhile Rigerman is looking to purchase a baby serval. "I want it as a house cat," he says. "I’ll neuter it, declaw it, and let it roam the house."
What about Oreo?
"They’ll get along," he says.