Video: Angry owner staff and news service reports
updated 7/14/2004 7:55:41 PM ET 2004-07-14T23:55:41

The owner of an escaped tiger fatally shot by wildlife officers said Wednesday that he believes someone opened several gates, enabling the big cat to get out.

Meanwhile, Florida wildlife officials defended the shooting of the tiger, and began investigating the owner's claim.

The 6-year-old tiger, named Bobo, was shot and killed Tuesday when it reportedly lunged at a wildlife officer who was trying to capture it.

Steve Sipek, an actor who once played Tarzan, said the gates would have had to be opened before the 6-year-old tiger, named Bobo, could have reached the 12-foot wall surrounding his property. He did not say who might have done it.

“He was let out by somebody who is interested in causing problems,” Sipek told CBS’ “The Early Show.” Sipek has another tiger, a panther, a cougar and lions on his five-acre compound, which is marked by a sign that reads, “Trespassers will be eaten.” They did not escape.

‘Murder is the word’
Willie Puz, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said Wednesday that Sipek’s claim was being investigated. He said Sipek has licenses for the big cats, but said he could not comment on whether they could now be revoked because that is part of the investigation.

Sipek, who developed a soft spot for jungle beasts while playing Tarzan in Spanish-language B-movies in the early 1970s, said he doubted the tiger had to be killed. He said he would have been able to coax the tiger, named Bobo, if officers had called him to the scene before shooting it.

“Murder is the word,” Sipek said. “They murdered a poor, helpless animal that only looked ferocious, as any tiger would, but Bobo had a heart of gold.”

Officials defend shooting
But wildlife officials defended their actions at a news conference Wednesday.

Maj. Brett Norton, regional commander for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, discounted reports that officers were laughing at the scene. “I can assure you that no one was laughing,” Norton said.

Video: Exotic animals as pets “The mood was very solemn. The officer was visibly shaken and concerned about the tiger.” Norton said the officer who fired the shots “was one of our most skilled officers.

“We are very concerned at the outcome of this event,” Norton said. “There was clear direction given to our officers not to shoot the animal unless there was an immediate threat to the public and themselves. We’re a conservation agency. Out goal is to protect Florida natural resources through law enforcement. That’s what we do each day.”

Lt. Charlie Dennis, the wildlife investigator in charge of the search, said the unexpected was always possible when dealing with wild animals. “We’ve had several captures,” said Dennis, who appeared to be near tears at the news conference. “All sorts of things can happen. They don’t always go according to plan.”

Reporters asked about the distance between Bobo and the officer. Norton wasn't specific about a distance but said the shooting took place at “very close proximity. … If I was an officer at that proximity, I would be scared.”

“We’ve had three people killed by tigers,” Dennis said. “You have milliseconds or microseconds to react once an attack has been initiated.”

24-hour search
A dozen wildlife trackers and sheriff’s deputies had searched more than 24 hours for the animal, which escaped Monday. They had kept watch Tuesday in a five-acre area of dense slash pines and palm trees, hoping to catch it.

Officers approached the tiger intending to shoot it with tranquilizers. But the tiger jumped at one officer, who shot it with a shotgun in self-defense, said Jorge Pino, a spokesman with the commission.

“Needless to say, the owner is very distraught. We’re distraught,” Pino said. “Our concern was to recover this tiger alive and well.”

Some nearby residents, who moved to the rural area so they could have room for their own pets, were less sympathetic.

‘This is a little funky’
“What I want to know is when he was in captivity, how long did he go without a feeding?” said Kim Smith, who has horses and dogs that she normally keeps outside.

Video: Escaped tiger killed

“Tigers are predatorial. All of us moved out here because we’re city people wanting a taste of the country. But this is a little funky.”

Wildlife officials had said they did not believe the declawed pet would attack. He was never taught to hunt, and had never killed anything or lived in the wild. However, he did bite a woman working inside his cage two years ago, severely injuring her.

An expert on tiger behavior disagreed that Bobo posed no danger.

“Tigers are wild animals and they retain hard-wired instincts. And to say just because a tiger doesn’t have his claws — so what? He still has his teeth and they’re powerful,” said Ron Tilson, conservation director at the Minnesota Zoo.

Sipek told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Wednesday that wildlife officials had told him they wouldn’t try to capture Bobo until later in the evening, so he went to take a shower. He said he was coming back to rejoin the search when he heard five shots and “my heart sank.”

Owner says officers laughed after shooting cat
“I kept my word, except I failed yesterday, trusting people,” he said. He said wildlife officials were laughing after the shooting.

“It was a glorified thing for them,” he said.

Sipek’s compound sits about 10 miles from West Palm Beach, just off a main east-west thoroughfare. Sipek has another tiger, a panther, a cougar and lions on his compound, which is marked by a sign that reads, “Trespassers will be eaten.”

“He never should have had these animals in the first place,” said Andrea Newell, who grew up two doors away and was visiting family on Tuesday.

The tiger’s escape and the shooting were under investigation, officials said.

In 1985, a tame, three-legged black leopard belonging to Sipek eluded searchers for nearly three days before being found wandering near a fence on his property.

Th e Associated Press and's Michael E. Ross contributed to this report.


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