LAGUTCHIK
Marlene Karas Cornman  /  AP
Veterinary technician Norma Lagutchik, front left, and members of the International Fund for Animal Welfare remove a tiger from a home in Pahrump, Nev., March 1. Animals rescued from the home were being taken to the Wild Animal Orphanage in San Antonio, Texas, for rehabilitation. A camera crew, in background, records each removal for legal and humanitarian reasons.
updated 3/7/2005 6:49:28 PM ET 2005-03-07T23:49:28

Down a quiet gravel road lined by homes, six tigers and two leopards live amid the roosters and cats in a small back yard. They are hungry and dirty, and their owner can no longer care for them.

Carol Asvestas is tired of seeing the same scene played out across the country. Big cats are taken in as pets or kept in so-called sanctuaries, but then are neglected by owners who become overwhelmed.

Many big cats, like the ones here, will end up with Asvestas at her Wild Animal Orphanage in San Antonio, Texas.

Animal protection groups want private ownership of big cats outlawed. They say that with an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 large cats kept as pets in the United States, the problem is out of control.

Just last week, authorities shot and killed a 425-pound tiger that had been roaming the hills near the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Los Angeles. Where it came from and who owned it is unknown.

State laws vary on owning exotic animals such as tigers, wolves and alligators. Just 14 ban private ownership altogether; eight have a partial ban on some species, 13 states regulate exotic animals and 15 states, including Nevada, have no regulations of many exotic animals, according to the Animal Protection Institute.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires licenses for exhibitors, dealers and researchers, but not private owners keeping a big cat as a pet.

"It's a huge public safety risk that is 100 percent preventable," said Dr. Kim Haddad, a veterinarian and manager of the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition, made up of more than 20 animal protection groups, sanctuaries and zoos.

"The solution is so easy. You just cannot have these animals as pets."

Sure, tiger cubs are cute and cuddly. But when they reach 600 pounds and eat 20 pounds of meat a day, owners often find themselves in over their heads. And it's often Asvestas who comes in to help.

Such was the case in Pahrump, a dusty desert town near the California border, where a woman decided she couldn't care for her back yard tigers and leopards anymore. One pet leopard was quarantined after it bit off the tip of the woman's finger last week.

Asvestas and the International Fund for Animal Welfare organized a rescue mission Tuesday, at the owner's request. She and helpers tranquilized, then loaded the skinny and mangy cats one by one into a trailer for the trip to Texas. There, they will be among 700 animals, 200 of them big cats. In the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson on Wednesday, the group collected two tigers, three lions and four wolves from another private owner.

Animal groups cite numerous incidents of big cats getting loose or harming someone.

Private zoos
The popularity of owning big cats prompted Congress to pass a law in 2003 that makes it illegal to sell or ship lions, tigers and other big cats across state lines without permits. But animal welfare groups want an outright ban, saying the 5,000 to 7,000 privately owned tigers probably exceed the total number in the wild.

"It is an odd phenomenon where people are setting up, essentially, personal zoos," said Chris Cutter, spokesman for the IFAW. "For some people, it's a status thing."

The call for an end to private ownership is not unanimous. Patti Strand, president of the National Animal Interest Alliance, said her organization supports regulation of exotic pet owners, but said people who can handle the animals should be able to have them.

"There is a growing body of animal groups that do nothing but exploit rather than try to solve problems because there are fund-raising dollars to be made by the sensationalism that goes along with that,' she said.

The tigers in Pahrump, kept in cages behind a tan-colored trailer home, were part of a defunct animal sanctuary, said Steven A. Benson, who identified himself as a board member.

"There's just too many cats to take care of," Benson said. "It's overwhelming."

Animal groups say many big cat owners set up as a nonprofit sanctuary as a front to get money and really aren't capable of caring for the animals.

"You have a lot of facilities out there who call themselves sanctuaries or rescue facilities," Haddad said. "For the most part, a lot of these people, these animals are their pets and they keep collecting them."

Big cats kept and bred in captivity can never be released in the wild because their fear of man is gone, and often their genetics are upset through inbreeding. As long as animals are kept in back yards, Asvestas will likely keep getting calls.

"I get tired," she said. "I can't take them all. We just turned down five animals last week."

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