After tiger discovered by pot smokers in abandoned Houston house, Spokane-area animal experts discuss controversy of keeping exotic animals as pets
Sampson, the largest Siberian tiger at Cat Tales Zoological Park, weighs approximately 700 pounds and consumes about 20 pounds of meat a day. He has 18 razor-sharp claws and 3- to 4-inch canines. With the strength of a small car, he could inflict fatal damage in seconds. And he started his life as a pet with three other tigers in a trailer in Napavine, south of Olympia.
“A tiger is a tiger is a tiger,” said Debbie Wyche, Cat Tales director. “It doesn’t matter how many generations it’s been born or raised into, they still have instincts of a top predator and it’s always there. … All it would take is one ‘oops’ and that’s it.”
On Monday, the issue of exotic animals being kept as pets was raised when a tiger was discovered in Houston, the Associated Press reported. Houston police say people who went into an abandoned home to smoke marijuana found a caged tiger.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals estimates there are 5,000 to 15,000 privately owned tigers in the country, but an exact figure is hard to come by because of varying state regulations and people failing to register their animals, often because the animal may be illegal, said Delcianna Winders, PETA spokeswoman.
In the case of Sampson, alongside his mate, Delilah, and two cubs, Romeo and Juliet, Washington had no laws against private ownership of tigers at the time of confiscation in 2007, but the incident provided momentum to a bill that banned many exotic pets, including tigers, The Spokesman-Review reported.
The tigers were discovered when Paul Mason was being evicted from his Western Washington home.
“We ended up going in with a SWAT team ahead of us to clear it because they knew there were firearms on site,” Wyche said.
Winders said existing regulations in Washington are some of the best in the country but still have room for improvement, including banning circus acts such as Jordan World Circus and Culpepper and Merriweather Circus, which she said have unsafe animal practices. Wyche said another problem is people traveling to states with more lax rules – like Idaho or Oregon – to purchase exotic pets.
In 1993, Jordan World Circus was fined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture when a tiger escaped and bit a 13-year-old girl. The act has five appearances scheduled in Washington in 2019, including an event at the Town Toyota Center in Wenatchee.
Wyche said Cat Tales received a lion and two tigers from Oregon because the animals were being used commercially for photographs. Regulations say that when the animals are 6 months or 35 pounds, they can no longer have public access.
“These animals were not useful, weren’t making money for the people anymore, and they needed a new home,” Wyche said. “Oftentimes in those situations, some animals will be euthanized if they’re not money makers, so we didn’t want to see that happen to these cats.”
Wyche said she often fields calls from Washington residents who have taken on bobcats as pets – which are legal in Washington – inquiring about care for the animal.
“I want to make sure the animal is healthy because I know within a year or two it’s going to end up here, so I will give them advice on how to care for it and sure enough, within a couple years they are calling us to say, ‘Hey, can you take it?’ ” Wyche said. “Even the smallest cats like the bobcats, often people will get those and say, ‘Oh well, it’s just a house cat,’ and they become extremely dangerous when they mature.”
For Wyche, the bobcat that immediately comes to mind is Wizard, who came to the shelter about 18 years ago. When Wizard was still young, Spokane County passed regulations regarding bobcat ownership. Prior to the regulations, Wyche said Wizard had been raised in a dark, windowless room with no fresh air.
“When the county went to this particular gentleman and said he had to improve conditions, he contacted us and we said, ‘Well, we need a few days to figure this out,’ ” Wyche said. “In the meantime, he took the cat to the veterinarian, who’s our primary vet, and said euthanize him.”
The vet helped arrange the bobcat’s transfer to Cat Tales.
Wyche said the bottom line is that wild animals do not make good pets.
“The main thing is they’re mainly purchased when they’re young and cute and adorable and the average person says, ‘Oh, well, I’m different, I can raise this, I know what I’m doing,’ and then the animal gets larger,” Wyche said.