Wed, Oct 08, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Tigers popular but dangerous pets

KILLING MACHINES There are as many privately owned tigers in the US as exist in the wild, but owners often don't realize you don't get a second chance with these big cats


In Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi, an Indian teenager survives a shipwreck to find himself sharing a lifeboat with a 204kg Bengal tiger. He quickly realizes that he must tame the tiger or be killed by it. And slowly, boy and tiger carve out a peaceful nautical existence.

In real life, wildlife experts said Monday, close relationships between humans and big cats often end less happily, as they did twice last week, on a Las Vegas stage and in a New York City apartment.

In Las Vegas, Roy Horn of the illusionist team Siegfried & Roy was severely mauled by a 272kg white tiger during a show at the Mirage Hotel on Friday night.

On Saturday, officials in New York removed a large tiger from an apartment in Harlem. The authorities were alerted to the animal's presence after its owner, Antoine Yates, reported to a hospital with animal bites that he told doctors were inflicted by a pit bull.

Given the large number of tigers and other wild cats that are privately owned in the US, the experts said, such attacks are inevitable, and it is surprising only that they do not occur more frequently.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," said Jim Breheny, associate general curator for the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo.

"There are thousands of cases like this that don't get this notoriety," he said.

At least as many tigers are privately owned in this country as exist in the wild, the experts said.

Only about 5,000 tigers, repre-senting five subspecies -- all endangered -- still roam freely in India, Myanmar, Malaysia, China, Russia and other countries. By contrast, John Seidensticker, a senior scientist at the National Zoo in Washington, estimated that more than 5,000 and perhaps as many as 10,000 tigers belong to private individuals or groups.

Many are bought as cubs through dealers who sell over the Internet or in advertisements placed in magazines. Some are owned by circuses or other entertainment ventures. About 1,100 tigers are raised in carefully monitored breeding programs at zoos.

No federal law bans the private ownership of tigers or other exotic cats, according to the federal Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. State and local laws governing the ownership of wild animals vary from region to region.

But to exhibit the animals publicly, an owner must apply for a license from the US Department of Agriculture. The agency requires that the owner provide a veterinary care program and sets standards for nutrition, housing, sanitation and transportation.

People who adopt wild cats often seem oblivious to the fact that the cute cubs who bottle-feed in their arms will soon grow into creatures that can crush the neck vertebrae of wild pigs with one bite.

"What they evolved for is killing things," Seidensticker said. "They are killing machines."

When wild cats do lash out, they often end up like Yates' tiger, who, after being removed from the apartment, was sent to a wildlife sanctuary in Ohio. Tigers can live up to 18 years, Breheny said, and once abandoned by their owners or removed from them, they often face uncertain futures.

The injuries a tiger inflicts are often serious.

"You don't have a second chance with a tiger," Breheny said. "They don't go for the arm or the leg, they go for the throat or the head."

Attacks by tigers are more common than most people realize, said Philip Nyhus, a professor of environmental studies at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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