By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
L.D. Turner, assistant chief of wildlife enforcement with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, says sometimes just a smell, a different behavior than an animal is accustomed to or just about anything can cause an animal to snap and attack. The only explanation, he says, is that exotic animals are wild and unpredictable, and they respond to their instincts.
"You can't breed that instinct out," he says.
Recent attacks involving children seem startlingly similar. Under the eye of a tiger's owner or handler, a child is taken into a pen with one or more lions or tigers, just as Matthew Scott was. The animal attacks without provocation and with alarming speed. Broken free from anyone's control, the animal grabs the child, kills or mauls him and then has to be driven off before it releases its jaws.
One of the luckier victims is Katie Baxter, now 12, of the Midlothian area. She was 6 in 1996 when her mother, Tammi Baxter, decided to visit the tigers owned by a cousin's friend. "Everybody knew about this place; everybody went out there all the time. It was sort of like a little wildlife thing," she says. "We got out there. They had, like, a viewing area; that's what they called it then. They had three other...enclosure things."
A ball was in the tigers' water bowl, and as Baxter and her children watched, one of the animal handlers went into the pen to retrieve it.
"He closed all the gates behind him, but somehow when he got to the last one to get the ball out of the water thing, this one tiger went nuts. [The tiger] hit one of the gates, kind of like stood up and hit the door," Baxter says. "He went through two other gates the same way and was out in the viewing area before we even knew what happened.
"Me and my son and my daughter were all in the viewing area. My son, he's like a little jackrabbit. He ran and ran out of the enclosure," she says. "I got to Katie, but by the time I got to her, he was already attacking her. It was horrible."
The tiger knocked Baxter and Katie down but "went for Katie," grabbing her by the neck. Then it started dragging her.
"We were trying to beat the tiger, beat it with our hands, but that wasn't stopping it. So my cousin, he got a metal pipe and knocked it in the head so we could get her away from the tiger," Baxter says.
There were no telephones, so Baxter put Katie and her son into their car and raced toward a nearby hospital. Baxter missed a turn and crashed into a ditch. Katie, who was bleeding from the neck, was taken to one hospital by helicopter ambulance. Baxter and her son were taken to another with injuries from the car wreck. Katie spent more than a month in the hospital and underwent cosmetic surgery.
"She has scars and stuff, but everything came out pretty good," Baxter says.
Richard Villafana's daughter wasn't as fortunate. A physician in San Antonio, Villafana, like Charlotte Scott, had misgivings about two pet tigers raised from infancy by his ex-wife and her husband, Bobby Hranicky. Villafana could tell his 10-year-old daughter Lauren of the danger of tigers, but there was nothing he could do to stop her from visiting her mother's home, where the tigers were kept in a pen. Lauren was fascinated with the tigers and popular with her friends because of them. In June 1999, Lauren visited her mother and the tigers.
"The stepfather had gone out to groom one of the cats, the female. On this occasion he allowed Lauren into the cage with him," Villafana says. "The male was allowed to be loose in another part of the cage. Lauren was allowed in to help groom the cat, the female.
"Lauren bent down to pet the female, and supposedly after she got back up to her feet, the male tiger attacked her, knocked her over. Broke her neck," he says. "The coroner told me he thought the death was instantaneous. In addition to that he also clamped his jaws around her head and neck. He also apparently lacerated major vessels in her neck, and she sustained a huge amount of blood loss. He dragged her to a water tank."
Villafana, one of those who lobbied for the legislation, gets choked up when he talks about the attack and his daughter. His life, he says, is destroyed.
"The average U.S. citizen has absolutely no business owning one of these animals, absolutely none," Villafana says. "These people who buy up these animals, whatever their motive is, which is usually greed, they have no right to do so. They are putting the public safety in danger; they're putting themselves in danger, and they are confining these animals that are not meant to be confined...I think they are blinded by greed and power."