On a sunny morning last February, Joe Murphy, the Greater Birmingham Humane Society's animal cruelty investigator, was called to Winfield, Alabama, a town 80 miles northwest of Birmingham whose 4,700 residents live in relatively close proximity. In the back yard of a two-acre property, he found a 500-pound tiger and a slightly larger lion. Both lay in cramped cages surrounded by mounds of excrement and old deer carcasses.
The scene was nothing unusual.
The California-based Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition estimates that as many as 7,000 tigers are currently kept as pets in the United States--that's more tigers than currently inhabit all the wilds of Asia.
Moreover, American homes host a total of as many as 20,000 big cats (principally tigers, lions, leopards and cougars), and, of note, 3,000 great apes.
Most states don't require licenses to keep exotic pets. Alabama is one of eleven states to have virtually no regulation on the possession or care of such animals.
Reporting for Alabama's Thicket magazine, I learned that even in the heart of downtown Birmingham, if you keep your 700-pound Siberian tiger confined to your apartment, from a legal standpoint, you're good.
Things have a way of going wrong, though.
"Tigers are awfully cute when they're cubs," said Murphy a genial and soft-spoken 32-year-old out of the Jimmy Stewart mold. "But for an idea of what they'll be like when they grow up, look at domestic cats when they're out in the yard, and watch what they do to small animals. Now add four hundred pounds to that."
"Tigers' instincts make them dangerous," explained veteran animal handler Wilbur McCauley. "There's no such thing as 'tamed.' When their instincts are triggered, no matter how much they love you, they don't know they love you."
The Winfield cats' owner had gone out of town and needed to stay away longer than anticipated. Her sons--one a teen, the other in his early 20s--didn't cotton to their cat-sitting assignment, to say the least. So she decided to turn the cats over to Murphy. Also in her yard was a third cage containing a comparatively small--120-pound--cougar (as it happens, because cougars are a protected wildlife species, keeping them is illegal).
Aiding Murphy in the extraction were members of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources along with representatives of the exotic animal preserve, Tigers for Tomorrow, including McCauley, its Director of Operations and Animal Care. The ten-person team crept into the yard--"everyone at the height of their senses," McCauley recalled.
They used meat to lure the tiger and cougar into transport cages. The lion couldn't be coaxed. McCauley drew a blowpipe and fired a tranquilizer dart--the first time in his long career he'd had to resort to the tactic. As soon as the lion was ready for transport, McCauley administered an injection that quickly reversed the drug's effect.
It was a good day on the whole. No one was hurt.
No people, that is.
"More often than not, it's the animal who suffers," said Susan Steffens-McCauley, the Executive Director of Tigers for Tomorrow and Wilbur McCauley's wife.
Tigers for Tomorrow provided a permanent home for the three cats at its 140-acre facility in Attalla, Alabama. The new arrivals joined seventeen other tigers, three other lions, and eleven other cougars--many rescued from similar circumstances.
Other residents included a six-month-old grizzly who was being used for photo ops at a North Carolina rest stop until he became too big and too lethal, a 90-pound tortoise found roaming the streets of Detroit, and a wallaby the McCauleys acquired on the internet.
The non-profit Tigers for Tomorrow's mission is to "uphold the highest standards of care and respect for exotic animals in need of a secure permanent home, creating a public awareness center to be utilized as an educational tool."
"Educating people is crucial," Murphy said. "Most of the time, people don't even know what they're getting into with domestic cats."
But education of this nature has been an uphill battle. The popularity of exotic pets--tigers in particular--is surging, perhaps attributable to a popular mindset that bigger and badder is better. As one owner exclaimed, "Tigers are the new pit bulls."
Even more troubling than such owners for Murphy are people who buy the animals without any intention of keeping them. He knows of a rural route, where, if you follow the hand-painted EXOTIC ANIMALS FOR SALE placard, you'll come to a dilapidated cattle barn. Inside you'll find a scene he characterizes as a flea market, with individuals bidding on big cats for "canned hunts."
Tigers usually go for $300 to $400.
The winners haul them to a remote area, loose them from their cage, then go hunting. Sort of. Having spent their lives in captivity, and the days prior to the auction in confines too small for them to stand, the cats often don't run.
And then there are the profiteers. Certain taxidermists have been known to buy a tiger and keep it until it's sufficiently plumped, at which point they kill it, stuff it and sell it as a trophy.
Other profiteers, sometimes fronted by bogus animal sanctuaries, will straightaway snuff and "part out" a tiger, selling everything from the hide (for as much as $15,000) to the penis, for which there is great demand among practitioners of Chinese Medicine who believe it to have an effect similar to Viagra's.The BBC reported on a restaurant in Beijing offering the organ for $5,700.
In the same circles, ingesting tigers' eyes is thought to improve vision. The whiskers supposedly remedy toothaches. And the brain? Cures laziness--and pimples too.
These theories are quickly repudiated by the vast majority of physicians practicing Chinese medicine. Regardless, a single tiger's parts can fetch $40,000 to $50,000.
Both canned hunts and "parting out" are illegal because tigers are an endangered species. Until exotic pet ownership requirements stem the supply, however, the United States will remain a major big-cat black market.
"Indifference is the biggest obstacle to legislation," legendary animal rescuer Carolyn Atchison told me. "The issue doesn't affect most people's lives, so they're not aware of it. The need is to raise public awareness."
(When I spoke to Atchison, she had recently extracted three big cats from a five-by-ten-foot unroofed pen just eight feet high and on a lot behind an elementary school.)
There has been some activity the federal level. The Captive Wildlife Safety Act, which passed Congress in 2003, bans the interstate trade of big cats like tigers for pets. Spencer Bachus (R, Alabama), Chairman of the House Zoo and Aquarium Caucus, told me in an e-mail, "Congress is looking at other legislation as well."
On state and local levels, most of the activity can be seen by following around Joe Murphy and his counterparts.
Allan Andress, Chief of Enforcement for Alabama's Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, told me, "We've been studying the matter for some time now. Public sentiment just hasn't driven public policy."
As another local official put it, "We already have a lot of laws, and people like things the way they are."
Meanwhile sanctuaries are blossoming. Tigers for Tomorrow plans to double in size. The venerable Tiger Haven sanctuary in Kingston, Tennessee, has 274 big cats and stands ready to accommodate more. New York financier Paul Parmar is spending $20 million in Mineola, Texas, to build what may become the nation's preeminent refuge.
Still, the hope at these booming facilities, said Steffens-McCauley, "is to take down fences instead of putting them up."
"The ultimate goal is to have no need to take in unwanted animals," Murphy said. "I'm working to put myself out of business."