Loose Tiger in Houston Underscores Lack of Federal Regulations

A bipartisan bill in Congress aims to outlaw the private possession of and profiteering off tigers and other exotic cats.

Waller County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Wes Manion approximates the size of the tiger, Monday, May 10, 2021, in Houston, that was loose the night before on the 1100 block of Ivy Wall Drive. (Godofredo A. Vásquez/Houston Chronicle via AP)

HOUSTON (CN) — A tiger recently spotted in a residential Houston neighborhood is now missing. Even if you don’t live in Texas you should be alarmed, wildlife advocates say, as the incident points to a larger problem of lax regulations of big exotic cats in the United States.

India, a 9-month-old male tiger, has not been seen since Sunday night when his handler fled from police with him in an SUV.

Police arrested the handler, 26-year-old Victor Hugo Cuevas, on Monday on charges of evading arrest. Prosecutors said they would try to prevent him from being released because he violated conditions of his bond for a murder charge. But he bonded out of the Fort Bend County Jail Wednesday afternoon.

While the episode made headlines around the globe, with a clip of India skulking across a street towards a man training a pistol on him, oblivious to the possibility of being shot, as the man backs away and says “No sir…No sir…No sir” going viral, Carson Barylak, campaigns manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said it did not surprise her.

“You know these animals are all over the place in the U.S. There’s basically little to no legal restrictions in place on who can own them and how they have to care for them,” Barylak said in a phone interview.

There are an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 tigers in Texas, but the actual number is unknown because it’s unknown how many owners do not abide by the state’s requirement to register them.

India scaled the backyard fence of the west Houston home Cuevas is renting, indicating Cuevas was out of compliance with Texas law mandating tigers be placed in an at least a 300-square-foot and 8-foot tall covered cage. Though there are exceptions to having to keep them in a covered cage if the space is large enough and the fence is at least 12 feet tall.

Texas tiger owners are also supposed to carry at least $100,000 in liability insurance.

Due to limited federal regulations, Americans can buy easily buy tigers. A Google search of “buy a tiger cub” turned up a company selling them for $1,300 and saying it will ship them to the U.S., Canada, United Arab Emirates and Australia. The site has a chat option listing a WhatsApp number with a California area code.

Barylak said tigers are constantly being bred in the U.S. by operators of lawful businesses that charge people to have their photo taken with tiger cubs, to bottle feed them and play with them. The cubs’ profitability declines, she said, after they are a few months old and they are put on the market.

“So most people that acquire tigers as pets or as parts of private collections in the U.S. those animals are all bred here in the U.S. They’re not generally being transported from overseas,” Barylak said.

Tigers are often declawed by unscrupulous exhibitors, which can leave them severely disabled, and have their canine teeth removed or filed down, according to Barylak.

Besides being inhumane, Barylak said, maiming tigers in these ways gives people a false sense they are safe to be around.

“When you are dealing with an apex predator that weighs a few hundred pounds mutilating its paws or pulling out a couple of its teeth is not going to make it not a dangerous animal,” Barylak cautioned.

There’s also the threat of picking up a zoonotic disease from tigers, she said. Rabies for one, as there is no approved vaccination for exotic cats.

Given the demand in some countries for traditional remedies made from tiger bones and other body parts, and also the popularity of tiger-skin rugs and tiger-teeth jewelry across the globe, experts say, Americans are involved in the international tiger-parts trade.

A bipartisan bill in Congress, the Big Cat Public Safety Act, aims to outlaw the private possession of and profiteering off tigers and other felines.

Exempting sanctuaries, universities and zoos, it would bar private citizens from possessing lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars or any hybrid of them, and clamp down on so-called “pay-to-play” operations by outlawing public petting, playing with, feeding and photo ops with cubs of these species. 

Having a tiger in Houston is a city code violation, a Class C misdemeanor, which carries no possibility of jail time, just a maximum $500 fine.

That clearly did not deter Cuevas from keeping India in his backyard. Cuevas is not India’s owner, only his caretaker, his attorney told local media.

A Houston police spokesman on Wednesday afternoon said India has yet to be located.

For Barylak, any restriction is better than no restrictions, but she is hoping Congress can pass reforms that apply nationwide.

“The truth is these animals are being bought, sold, traded across state lines constantly and having local, or even state restrictions, can’t solve the problem in its entirety,” she said.

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