By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"Kerry said, 'OK, let's go.' I said, 'What are you doing?'" Scott recalls.
His adult daughter Nikki, who held a camera, trailed Quinney. The three were going to take pictures with Quinney's three adult tigers in the pen out back, he explained. Scott didn't like the idea and never had. She didn't care that Quinney had bottle-fed the tigers from infancy and that the animals seemed tame.
Scott's instinct again told her that a 3-year-old child had no business being around large and unpredictable animals.
She had stood her ground when the subject of pictures with the tigers had come up before, but Matthew persisted. After all, the boy reasoned, his father had been photographed with the tigers. And even more than being a cowboy, more than anything, Matthew wanted to be like his father.
In the kitchen that October day last year, Quinney reassured the 24-year-old Scott that her little boy would be safe in the tiger pen. Quinney would be there.
"He said, 'Don't worry, I'm going to hold him. I'm holding him. I said, 'OK, you're not going to let him down, right?' And I mean I didn't want him to go out, but I thought, no, Charlotte, don't overreact. Kerry is there. Nothing will happen because he is their owner, you know."
After the three went out the back door, Charlotte's husband, James, came into the kitchen and asked where Matthew was. Charlotte told her husband that Matthew was out getting his picture taken with the tigers.
"He said, 'I'm going to go out and cook steaks.' He went out and put some steaks on the grill out in the front. Then Nikki ran inside in the back...I said, 'What's going on?'" she says, her voice trembling in the retelling of the story. "She said, 'The tiger's got Matthew.' She ran out the front, so I followed her."
A tiger had clamped its massive jaws onto one of Matthew's feet and ripped the boy from Quinney's arms. James heard the commotion and ran from the barbecue grill toward the tiger pen.
"I heard my little boy saying, 'Daddy,' kind of like a screaming sound," he says.
James says when he reached the pen, he saw that the tiger was holding his son by the foot. When the animal saw James, it bolted, dragging Matthew like a rag doll and slamming the boy's head into a pipe on the cage floor.
"I heard him hit that pipe, and I knew it. The tiger all of the sudden stopped and got away," James says. "I knew. I picked him up...I tried everything to keep him going."
Charlotte says she got to the pen just in time to see James pick Matthew up off the floor. She went to Matthew and looked at her son's face.
"I ran in there and looked in his eyes, and it just didn't look like he was there," she says. "I was hysterical. Oh, God, it was terrible."
Matthew was airlifted by helicopter ambulance from the ranch in Lexington, about 60 miles northeast of Austin, to a hospital in the capital. There was no room in the helicopter for James and Charlotte. They spent a panicked 45 minutes speeding from the farm to the hospital. When they arrived they found out what Charlotte already knew. Matthew, just shy of his fourth birthday, was dead.
Matthew should not have died in a tiger pen, and neither should the other Texas children and adults killed or attacked by outwardly tame and friendly pet tigers during the last few years, but a four-year absence of state law from 1997 to 2001 is being blamed for an increase in amateur lion tamers and a growing number of "incidents" involving wild animals caged in rural back yards.
There is no official count yet, but those familiar with the issue claim that the tiger population in Texas is at about 4,000 animals, which, if accurate, would mean there are more tigers in the state than in India. Just how many backyard lions and tigers there are in rural Texas won't really be known until June, when a new state law will require exotic-animal owners to register with the state's Department of Health.
In the meantime, in counties that have used the new law to enact an outright ban on exotic animals, pet lions, tigers and other creatures are being forced out of the hands of some owners. Some animal sanctuaries, particularly those of dubious methods and means, are being forced to close, and owners are making plenty of noise about it. The crackdown is making some big-animal owners angry, but that's of little concern to people such as animal rights activist Skip Trimble, who says the Legislature has finally corrected a decision that resulted in an exotic-animal free-for-all that took six years and three legislative sessions to stop.
"We knew that problems were coming this way, so we tried our best to stop it, to nip it in the bud, but it took three sessions to get the law passed," Trimble says. "At first, people were saying, 'I don't think it's much of a problem.' The next year, they said, 'It's kind of a problem, but we don't need to do anything about it.'...It became real obvious, and the longer it went the more support we got, but likewise the bigger the problem...It got further and further out of hand."