The Orange and Black Market

The Plight of Tigers in Alabama
By Keith Thomson
Photos by Jason Wallis

One sunny day last February, Joe Murphy, the Greater Birmingham Humane Society’s animal cruelty investigator, was called to Winfield, a town 80 miles northwest of Birmingham whose 4,700 residents live in relatively close proximity. In the backyard of a two-acre property there, he found a 500-pound tiger and a slightly larger lion. Both lay in cramped cages surrounded by mounds of excrement and old deer carcasses.

The scene was nothing unusual.

The California-based Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalitionestimates as many as 7,000 tigers are currently kept as pets in the United States—that’s more tigers than currently inhabit all the wilds of Asia. In addition, American homes host a total of as many as 20,000 big cats (principally tigers, lions, leopards and cougars), and, of note, 3,000 great apes. And those numbers would be far higher if most states didn’t require licenses to keep exotic pets. Alabama is one of ii states with virtually no regulation on the possession or care of such animals. Even within Birmingham city limits, if you keep your 700-pound Siberian tiger confined to your property, from a legal standpoint, you’re good.

Things have a way of going wrong, though.

“Tigers are awfully cute when they’re cubs,” says Murphy, a genial and soft-spoken 32-year-old out of the Jimmy Stewart mold. “But for an idea of what they’ll be like when they grow up, look at domestic cats when they’re out in the yard, and watch what they do to small animals. Now add 400 pounds to that.”

“Tigers’ instincts make them dangerous,” explains veteran animal handler Wilbur McCauley. “There’s no such thing as ‘tamed.’ When their instincts are triggered, no matter how much they love you, they don’t know they love you.”

The Winfield cats’ owner had gone out of town and needed to stay away several weeks longer than anticipated. Her sons—one a teenager, the other in his early twenties—didn’t cotton to their cat-sitting assignment, to say the least. So she decided to turn the cats over to Murphy. Also in her yard was a third cage containing a comparatively small—120-pound—cougar. (As it happens, because cougars are a protected wildlife species, keeping them is illegal.)

Aiding Murphy in the extraction were members of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources along with representatives of the exotic animal preserve, Tigers for Tomorrow, including the 43-year-old McCauley, its Director of Operations and Animal Care. The 10-person team crept into the yard—“everyone at the height of their senses,” as McCauley recalls. They used meat to lure the tiger and cougar into transport cages. The lion couldn’t be coaxed. McCauley drew a blowpipe and fired a tranquilizer dart—the first time in his long career he’d had to resort to the tactic. As soon as the lion was ready for transport, McCauley administered an injection that quickly reversed the drug’s effect.

It was a good day on the whole. No one was hurt.

No people, that is.

“More often than not, it’s the animal that suffers,” says Susan Steffens-McCauley, the Executive Director of Tigers for Tomorrow and Wilbur McCauley’s wife.

Tigers for Tomorrow provided a permanent home for the three cats at its 140-acre facility in Attalla. The new arrivals joined 17 other tigers, three other lions, and 11 other cougars—many rescued from similar circumstances. The 105 animals now residing there include a six-month-old grizzly who was being used for photo ops at a North Carolina rest stop until he became too big and too lethal, a 90-pound tortoise found roaming the streets of Detroit, and a wallaby the McCauleys saw listed for sale on the Internet; they bought him for $100.

According to its Web site, tigersfortomorrow.org, the non-profit seeks to “uphold the highest standards of care and respect for exotic animals in need of a secure permanent home, creating a public awareness center to be utilized as an educational tool.”

Murphy backs that mission. “Educating people is crucial,” he says. “Most of the time, people don’t even know what they’re getting into with domestic cats.”

But education of this nature has been an uphill battle in Alabama. The popularity of exotic pets—tigers in particular—is surging, perhaps attributable to a popular mindset that bigger and badder is better. As longtime animal rescuer Carolyn Atchison puts it, “Tigers are the new pit bulls.”

“It’s more of a problem here,” says Murphy, meaning Alabama, as opposed to his previous posting, Indiana, where permits to keep exotic pets are issued on a case basis. He finds his current job “much more stressful.” His cell phone may summon him to action at any moment, day or night. “I never know what I’m going to have to deal with.”

Even more troubling for him than exotic pet owners are people who buy the animals without any intention of keeping them. He knows of a rural route, where, if you follow the hand-painted EXOTIC ANIMALS FOR SALE placard, you’ll come to a dilapidated cattle barn. Inside you’ll find a scene he characterizes as a flea market, with individuals bidding on big cats for “canned hunts.” Tigers usually go for $300 to $400. The winners haul them to a remote area, loose them from their cage, then go hunting. Sort of. Having spent their lives in captivity, and the days prior to the auction in confines too small for them to stand, the cats often don’t run.

And then there are the profiteers. Certain taxidermists have been known to buy a tiger and keep it until it’s sufficiently plumped, at which point they kill it, stuff it and sell it as a trophy. The McCauleys recently saved a six-month-old cub from that fate with a preemptive bid of $500. They named her Katie, and she now happily resides at their facility in a comfortable enclosure much larger than those at most zoos.

Other profiteers, sometimes fronted by bogus animal sanctuaries, will straightaway snuff and “part out” a tiger, selling everything from the hide (for as much as $15,000) to the penis, for which there is great demand among practitioners of Chinese medicine who believe it to have an effect similar to Viagra’s. The BBC recently reported on a restaurant in Beijing offering the organ for $5,700. In the same circles, ingesting tigers’ eyes is thought to improve vision. The whiskers supposedly remedy toothaches. And the brain? Cures laziness—and pimples too. These theories are quickly repudiated by the vast majority of physicians practicing Chinese medicine. Regardless, a single tiger’s parts can fetch $40,000 to $50,000.

Both canned hunts and parting out are illegal in Alabama because tigers are an endangered species. Until exotic pet ownership requirements stem the supply, however, the state will remain a major big-cat black market, according to Carolyn Atchison. In addition to rescuing animals, Atchison has spent 26 years running the Animal House Zoological Park in Moulton. The 60-acre sanctuary has provided a home for as many as 119 big cats at once, including three extracted from a 5 x 10-foot unroofed pen just eight feet high and on a lot behind an elementary school in Hazel Green. “Indifference is the biggest obstacle to legislation,” she says. “The issue doesn’t affect most people’s lives, so they’re not aware of it. The need is to raise public awareness.”

Brant Craig is County Commissioner (R) in DeKalb County’s District Three, which includes Tigers for Tomorrow. He too regards raising awareness as a vital part of the solution, and he applauds the McCauleys’ efforts toward that end. “They’re heroes,” he says. While he agrees legislation is necessary, he believes attaining it will be a hard road. “People in Alabama are more opposed to restrictions than in other states. That’s just the way of life we’ve grown up with. We already have a lot of laws, and people like things the way they are.”

Allan Andress, Chief of Enforcement for Alabama’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, says, “We’ve been studying the matter for some time now. Public sentiment just hasn’t driven public policy.”
Nevertheless, says State Senator Lowell Barron (D), whose Eighth District includes DeKalb County, “We shouldn’t allow this to continue to be unregulated.” He plans to raise the level of awareness of the issue among state legislators, but he suspects, “This still is not going to be priority number one or number two or number three for most of them.”

There is more action on the federal level. Congressman Spencer Bachus (R) of Alabama’s Sixth District reports, “As the Chairman of the House Zoo and Aquarium Caucus, I’ve tried to educate Members of Congress and the public about the duty of treating exotic and wild animals responsibly. The Captive Wildlife Safety Act, which passed Congress with my support [in 2003], bans the interstate trade of big cats like tigers for pets. Congress is looking at other legislation as well.”

Meanwhile word-of-mouth has brought 20,000 visitors to Tigers for Tomorrow in the past year, and the organization has plans to nearly double in size and increase its educational programming exponentially. The venerable Tiger Haven sanctuary in Kingston, Tennessee, has 274 big cats and stands ready to accommodate more. And New York financier Paul Parmar is spending $20 million in Mineola, Texas, to build what may become the nation’s preeminent refuge for abused tigers. Still, the hope at these booming facilities, says Steffens-McCauley, “is to take down fences instead of putting them up.”

“The ultimate goal is to have no need to take in unwanted animals,” Murphy says. “I’m working to put myself out of business.”