Texas tries to leash wild pets

Law: The state now requires counties to ban or regulate exotic animals, sending many owners scrambling to save their "Texotics."

February 03, 2002|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MINEOLA, Texas -- The Rathburns are the kind of indulgent pet owners who treat their animals like children -- bottle-feeding them as babies, building them a pool with a waterfall, posing with them for Christmas photos.

That their pet cats happen to be Bengal tigers probably would raise eyebrows in most places but Texas, where exotic animals have become such a part of the landscape that they even have their own name: "Texotics." This, after all, is the state where hunters flock to bag scimitar-horned oryx and aoudad sheep, restaurants casually offer elk and wild boar and having a really big cat in your back yard has gotten so trendy, some say more tigers live in Texas than their ancestral home of India.

But there has been a price to such popularity and the state's total lack of regulation of potentially dangerous pets -- including a series of maulings and the death of a 10-year-old girl. So last year Texas passed a law that requires counties to ban or regulate the keeping of lions, tigers, bears and 16 other animals deemed too dangerous for domestic living.

The law, which is going into effect in stages and will be fully in place later this year, has sent some owners scrambling for alternate arrangements for their pets. With many of Texas' 254 counties opting for an outright ban, animal sanctuaries and zoos have been deluged with calls to take in animals they'll have difficulty accommodating.

Some, though, are warning: Don't mess with Texotics.

"When I heard about the law, I said, `They are not taking these animals away from us,'" said Lou Rathburn, whose frosted hair matches that of their tigers, Raja, Rani, Shazada, Berani and Kumar.

Rathburn and her husband, Bill, a former Dallas police chief and security consultant to the Winter Olympics, persuaded their county officials to grandfather in their pets.

The couple argued that the animals are well-kept and secure on their ranch here in eastern Texas. They're kept in an enclosure of welded-wire fences -- behind two sets of locked gates -- and they have never gotten loose or bitten anyone, the Rathburns said.

The pets -- in addition to the tigers, they have a serval, which looks like a miniature cheetah and is also on the dangerous-animals list -- seem like overgrown cats. They gambol about their area and let their owners nuzzle them. When Lou Rathburn smooches Shazada affectionately, it responds like a child to an over-enthusiastic aunt -- squinting its eyes and trying to rub off the resulting smear of lipstick.

Lou Rathburn bought and brought home their first tiger about seven years ago when she visited a woman who kept exotics and felt sorry for a baby tiger that was being kept in a small cage with several others.

"He came up and sucked on my finger," she said of Raja, now 8 years old, 700 pounds and beset with cataracts. "He still sucks my finger. He stayed in the house with us for about a year and a half."

After about a year, she thought Raja seemed a little lonely and decided to get him a companion -- another tiger that she thought had been mistreated by its breeder.

Soon, Lou Rathburn became known as something of a soft touch, and everyone from her veterinarian to a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector started suggesting animals that she should take in, which is why the couple now has a menagerie of six exotics. (A seventh, their first serval, died. They had it stuffed to display on a shelf in their living room.)

`A lot of work'

But even Lou Rathburn believes the ownership of exotic animals should be regulated, saying many people don't realize what they're getting into when they buy a big cat.

She estimates they spend more than $30,000 a year feeding and providing medical care for the pets, which eat special food trucked in from Omaha in addition to cases of chicken and beef from the local Wal-Mart.

"I don't think people should just be allowed to have exotic felines. It really does require a lot of work and time," she said. "But what concerns me is, what will happen to all these exotic felines that are already here? What is the state going to do about that?"

Several animal sanctuaries say that even before the new law they were overwhelmed by the number of exotics in need of new homes, often because someone bought a cute baby animal and then was shocked when it grew into hundreds of pounds of beast.

"We've got a lion here who was a drug dealer's guard cat," said Cindy Carroccio, co-director of the Austin Zoo, a sanctuary for mistreated or abandoned animals. "We have a tiger that a woman bought at a truck stop in western Texas. We've had a lynx from a fur farm, primates that have been pets, leopards. If we built an enclosure a day, we could fill them. It's disheartening. I can't save them all, and I don't know where they'll end up."

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