Charlotte Scott remembers being in the kitchen preparing for a barbecue when her husband's stepfather, Kerry Quinney, walked in and scooped up her 3-year-old son Matthew for a visit to the tigers.
"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."
The exact number of "incidents" between humans and exotic animals is unknown. The Humane Society of Greater Dallas informally logged more than 30 incidents involving exotic animals in Texas since 1995, a third of which occurred during the last two years. Most involved escapes or attacks on humans or family pets, and many of the attacks were on children who were mauled by exotic animals kept by family members.
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."
According to those who fought for new legislation, the number of exotic animals and attacks began to rise in 1997, when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department got out of the exotic-animal regulation business, says Trimble, a Dallas real estate investor when he isn't pushing for new animal protections. Trimble says he became involved in exotic animals when he helped work to ban "canned" hunts, a method of hunting that involves releasing caged animals as game.
The parks department originally petitioned the Legislature for relief from exotic-animal oversight because, department officials said, exotic animals weren't really wild. They were caged. Officials also said the department was ill-equipped to deal with the problems of the oversight of exotic animals. It was a public safety issue best handled by local law enforcement.
Legislators agreed and repealed provisions that made the department responsible.
Lawmakers informally turned regulatory authority over to both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to counties. But financially strapped counties did not pick up the job where the state left off. They left the regulatory mission in rural Texas solely in the hands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects caged exotic animals and their living conditions.
"As it turned out, the USDA doesn't really make their license holders [comply with] stringent rules about caging standards," Trimble says. "They do about animal health, but they didn't about animal caging standards."
The USDA only inspects if the animal owner holds what is known as a Class C exhibitor's license, and even then inspectors are interested only in animal welfare issues. So, once Texas absolved itself of any regulating authority, there was nothing to stop anyone outside a city's jurisdiction from buying, selling, breeding or keeping lions or tigers or any other relatively easy-to-obtain wild animal.
The animals aren't too difficult to get, people familiar with the business say. Lions, tigers, monkeys and many other types of animals usually found in zoos often are available from independent breeders at roadside attractions, in classified advertisements and even on the Internet. On the Internet, bobcats, cougars and Bengal tiger kittens can be found for sale or trade. One site, Exotic Animal Finder, helps match up buyers and sellers. On Exotic Animal Finder's home page, above a photograph of an adult lion, it says, "Just one of the many animals we can locate for you."
Pat Hoctor, an advocate of exotic-animal ownership and owner of the Animal Finder's Guide, a publication that caters to those who own exotic animals, concedes that lions, tigers and other animals are available, but, he says, so are other dangerous things that might be improperly obtained.
"It's not that easy to find them, but yes, I'm sure if you really, really wanted to and really hunted hard and were willing to travel, you could probably find a tiger cub somewhere to buy. I'm sure you could do the same thing with a lion cub," he says. "But I also think that if you tried really, really hard, you could find an illegal gun to buy or illegal narcotics...and you probably wouldn't have to travel out of the city that you reside in."
Under the new law that took effect September 1, a county can make a choice to ban the exotic animals or direct the sheriff's office to establish a regulatory authority. In counties that allow exotic animals, an owner must comply with all sorts of new regulations. The list of animals in the exotic category includes lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, baboons, chimpanzees, gorillas and others.
An owner must obtain a $100,000 insurance policy that would pay for death, damage or injury done by an animal. Caging has to comply with structural standards prescribed by the Texas Department of Health. Owners must care for the animal in accordance with standards set forth in the federal Animal Welfare Act.
Once an owner complies with those conditions, he can get a certificate, which must be filed with the state. That will provide a better count of the legal exotic animals in the state and will make all exotic-animal locations public knowledge. Trimble says the new legislation allowed some exemptions, such as for medical research facilities, animal mascots, state or city zoos, movie production companies and others.
The legislation further allows county authorities to ignore any type of exemption if they choose and to regulate or prohibit any animal they decide is too dangerous.
Trimble says he is conducting an informal poll of county commissioners courts to determine which have decided to ban exotic animals. Dallas and Tarrant counties both enacted bans with exemptions for certain types of animal owners. He has yet to hear from about 75 of the 254 Texas counties but says most that have responded opted for the outright ban.
"Many, many counties, particularly the smaller counties, have taken that option," he says. "Most of them are out and out just saying they are banned period, and they don't make an exception for whether it's an AZA [American Zoo and Aquarium Association] zoo or Baylor University or anything. They just say they are out of here. I would say that's the overwhelming majority."
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.
"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.
"This law in the next session is going to get turned around," he says. "We believe that some form of this law should be in effect, but the way it's written now it's unconstitutional, and we're raising money to challenge it because we can get it overturned very easily."
One of the problems with the law is that it ignored the fact that the USDA is already conducting regular inspections of operations such as his, which have Class C licenses. Terranova strongly disagrees that USDA-inspected facilities are the problem when it comes to accidents, and for that reason they should have been exempted the same way that zoos were exempted.
"We asked that they exempt all Class C exhibitors under the USDA. They said that you guys are causing all the problems," he says.
The law discriminates against smaller exhibitors by excluding them from exemptions and forces them to pay $10,000 to join the AZA or $50 per animal to license them in counties that allow it. Counties are being forced to decide whether to spend a lot of money to monitor exotic animals or ban them. Terranova says county commissioners most likely will choose the ban. Instead of being legislated out of existence, he says, responsible animal owners should be able to get an exemption the same way that USDA-licensed zoos are exempted. Exotic-animal owners opposed to the legislation suggested five qualifications with which an animal owner could be exempted from the law: a bachelor of science degree or equivalent experience; two years of species-specific experience; proof of at least $100,000 insurance; a contingency plan for escape on file with the sheriff's office; and regular USDA inspections.
"Nope, they wouldn't go for that," he says.
Legislators were misled into enacting the legislation by emotional testimony from those such as Villafana, Terranova says. Villafana's 10-year-old daughter's death was one of those caused by an irresponsible exotic-animal owner, he claims, and nothing in the new law would prevent that because there is no distinction between competent professionals and amateur exotic-animal owners.
"You cannot regulate stupidity. That tiger never escaped. No USDA laws were broken except for the fact that the parents let the child go in the cage. I've got all these locks now; I've got perimeter fences and everything. If I open the door and put my kid in there, no law changes the fact that I'm stupid."
Villafana may agree it was stupidity that killed his daughter, but he does not agree that less government oversight is good.
The owners of the tiger that killed Villafana's daughter were licensed by the USDA, as were owners of tigers that killed Matthew Scott and attacked Katie Baxter. Those people simply should not have been able to own the animals, he says. Trimble says agriculture department license holders were a big part of the problem the law was trying to solve.
"Many of these accidents were happening with animals owned by USDA license holders," he says. "We didn't want to just exempt these people. We wanted these people to be registered so the Texas public would know where these animals are. You may choose not to live in the vicinity of someone who has one. If they don't register, then you don't know that."
Those who have experienced an attack by a pet lion, tiger or gorilla and the like seem to agree the beasts make terrible and dangerous family pets. Bobby Hranicky, once an enthusiastic tiger owner, is among those who say they are not meant to be part of the family.
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It was Hranicky's pet tiger that killed his stepdaughter, Villafana's daughter. Now he says he should never have been allowed to own tigers and few others should either. The only place anybody should see a big cat is from the safety of a well-run zoo, he says.
"We don't have them anymore, and we'll never own them again, and we'll never own another thing like that. It doesn't matter how good you are, how careful you are; the potential for accidents is just too great," he says. "Yeah, we need a lot more regulation...They need to have no contact with humans. They need to be in zoos. They need to be protected in wildlife refuges. I'm not saying they should be banned; I'm saying the regulation should be a lot tougher so private citizens can't have them."
Charlotte Scott buried her son in a little cemetery overlooking the greyhound ranch and the old tiger pen. At the Scotts' insistence, Quinney sent the tigers to a sanctuary. The family still lives on the greyhound ranch within eyesight of each other's houses and the graveyard on the hill. Scott says she thought about moving, but she preferred staying, taking some solace in the knowledge that Matthew loved it there so much. She is understandably shaken by what happened, but she is trying to move on; she is raising her other son, an infant, and is pregnant with what will be her third child, she says. She doesn't know if tougher laws would have saved her son, and she doesn't blame the four-year regulatory vacuum, her husband's stepfather or the tiger. She just misses her son.
"I can't even explain it," she says.