Catch Those Tigers

Years of little or no regulation have made Texas a place where big cats prowl--and sometimes kill

The new law will cause some upheaval for exotic-animal owners and for some sanctuary owners, Trimble says, but the upheaval is a small concern relative to the benefits of getting control of the problem that the lack of regulation caused.

"If we'd had this bill in place in 1995 when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department got out of the business of regulating, we wouldn't have all these animals here," Trimble says. "True, there will be some immediate problems, there will be some immediate crises, and people who have these animals are going to make some tough decisions, but it's better now making it with one animal than making it with 50."

Nicole Ammon is co-owner of the International Wildlife Center in Frost, an animal sanctuary that is one of the casualties of the new law. Frost, about 50 miles south of Dallas, is in Navarro County, which has banned exotic animals. Navarro County, she says, used the new state law to target her sanctuary even though she is trying to save lions and tigers in need of homes. The center has 13 lions and tigers, a monkey, dogs and other common animals in cages. She says that because the county banned exotic animals, she is being forced to move the sanctuary.

Charlotte and James Scott, with their 13-month-old son MacKinnley, visit their son Matthew's grave. There is no headstone, but a marker on the grave says, "No farewell words were spoken, no time to say good-bye, you were gone before we knew it, and only God knows why."
John Anderson
Charlotte and James Scott, with their 13-month-old son MacKinnley, visit their son Matthew's grave. There is no headstone, but a marker on the grave says, "No farewell words were spoken, no time to say good-bye, you were gone before we knew it, and only God knows why."
Matthew Scott was nearly 4 years
old when he was killed by a tiger.
Matthew Scott was nearly 4 years old when he was killed by a tiger.

"I mean, the law was supposed to target individuals that say, 'Oh, I want a cute baby tiger as a pet. I'm going to get one and put it in my back yard and raise my kids with it,'" she says. "You know that's how most of the kids are getting attacked because people get them as a pet and think it's a dog."

But not everyone is sympathetic with Ammon. Don Barron, chief deputy in Navarro County, denies that Ammon's center is being targeted. He says besides the fear created by the center's animals, the center's co-owner, James Garretson, showed up in the spring of 2001 with a lion and quickly was at odds with authorities.

"Mr. Garretson brought a lion, probably an 800-pound lion to that area...He kept him in a horse trailer. This was not the type of situation we wanted for that area," Barron says. "We told him that will not work. The animal was not to be penned up like that; he was going to have to leave."

Despite concerns from a sheriff's department that held little authority to stop them, Garretson and Ammon acquired more and more animals in the ensuing months, and they installed permanent structures alongside the pens of what was once an emu farm. By September, when Navarro County's commissioners decided to ban exotic animals, the center had many tigers and other animals. Barron said some neighbors complained because they feared for their children's safety.

"People can hear those lions roaring at night," he said. "It's sort of scary."

Carol Asvestas, executive officer of the Animal Sanctuary of the United States in San Antonio, also known as the Wild Animal Orphanage, says the term "sanctuary" has been bandied about as a place where exotic animals are saved from certain death.

More accurately, she says, many sanctuaries are nothing but places that allow animals to breed and be exploited, with babies sold as pets--something Ammon says is not happening at her center. Asvestas says the term "sanctuary" is often misused as a way to raise money from the sympathetic public.

"I wouldn't classify them as a sanctuary," she says of Ammon's facility. "The difference between a credible sanctuary and a pseudosanctuary is that a credible sanctuary does not breed and it does not sell its animals. It does its very, very best to give animals large, natural areas, not tiny little cages."

Asvestas' sanctuary is a member of the American Sanctuary Association and adheres to a number of restrictions in its dealings with exotic animals. For instance, the sanctuary doesn't allow staff members to interact with or even touch the animals. There is no commercial activity on the site, and animals are not allowed to breed, according to the sanctuary's literature.

"If you don't have the facilities and you can't take care of your animals, then you shouldn't have them, and that's the bottom line," Asvestas says.

Some of her animals are available for exhibition, Ammon says, but the center's mission is to save them from being put to death. She and Garretson, have decided to leave the state rather than deal with the stepped-up regulations.

"A lot of the sanctuaries were for this law because it was going to stop these stinking people who were just going to get one as a pet," Ammon says. "Instead, it's hurting all the sanctuaries...Animals are going to be confiscated that are pets, and where are they going to go if they close all the sanctuaries?"


By June, the state should have a fairly accurate accounting of the exotic-animal population in Texas. That's when owners are supposed to be licensed, registered with the state or gone from counties that have enacted bans. But laws can change, and some of those most affected by the exotic-animal legislation plan are not done with the fight.

Doug Terranova, an exotic-animal exhibitor who provides animals for commercials, movies and TV programs, is one of those who spoke out against the legislation. He plans to renew his effort to revise it during the next session.

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