Hold That Tiger: The recent big cat attacks in Missouri have residents and state officials calling for tougher exotic animal laws


Earlier this month an 800-pound tiger managed to scale a twelve-foot chainlink fence and maul a 26-year-old volunteer at the Wesa-A-Geh-Ya animal refuge near Warrenton. The beast, shot to death by the farm's owners moments after the attack, knocked Jacob Barr down and chewed his leg to the point that it had to be amputated below the knee.

The well publicized incident on August 3 came nearly five years after inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid a visit to the refuge to make sure that the 44 tigers, eleven lions and seven Arctic wolves housed there were being treated humanely and kept in secure cages.

On October 30, 2003, USDA inspectors cited the refuge for a number of violations, including a lack of cover for many animal cages and gaps in the chainlink fences of the tiger pens. When inspectors returned for a follow-up review in December 2003, owners Ken and Sandra Smith abruptly chose to surrender their USDA exhibitor's license rather than let them enter the facility.

Forfeiting the license meant Wesa-A-Geh-Ya (which means "cat lady" in Sandra Smith's native Cherokee language) could no longer charge admission to view the animals, but it also ensured that the federal inspectors would not return.

"After losing or surrendering a license, the animals became private collections, which we have no control over," says USDA spokeswoman Karen Eggert. "The USDA does not have oversight of animals, including big cats kept as personal pets. It is up to the state to impose restrictions."

The attack at Wesa-A-Geh-Ya was the second tiger mauling in the state in as many days. On August 4, a sixteen-year-old employee at Predator World near Branson was attacked by three tigers when he entered their pen to take a picture. Both episodes this month have drawn scrutiny to the lack of oversight and regulation that govern private ownership of exotic animals.

"Any way you look at it, from ensuring the well-being of animals to public safety, all agencies involved are failing miserably," says Lisa Wathne, a Seattle-based captive exotic animal specialist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Missouri is one of 23 states that permit individuals to keep tigers and other big cats as pets. State law says only that owners must register their animals with a local law enforcement agency and that failure to do so is a misdemeanor.

"We just keep list of caged predators and wild animals in the county. As far as regulating, we don't do that," says Quirt Page, chief deputy sheriff in Stone County, where Predator World is located. "We're not prepared for private citizens owning tigers. I've never understood what we'd do if we had a major escape. Our officers aren't going to get out there and use a Taser to deal with a 400-pound tiger. That'll just make him mad."

The Missouri Department of Conservation annually inspects sites that house native big cat species such as cougars, but has no jurisdiction over tigers and other non-indigenous creatures. Meanwhile, the USDA only oversees places like zoos, roadside attractions and circuses, which allow public access to the animals.

While the USDA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulate the import and sale of tigers and other wild animals, a study published last month by the World Wildlife Fund found that "these federal agencies do not know at any given time how many tigers actually exist in the United States."

According to the Animal Protection Institute, from 1990 to 2006, there were 157 documented escapes, attacks and other disruptive incidents involving captive big cats throughout the country.

The violations at Wesa-A-Geh-Ya that were meted out by USDA inspectors in 2003 was not the only time the facility and its owners ran afoul of authorities.

Court records show that in June 2007, the refuge's co-owner Ken Smith was arrested in Warren County and sentenced to two years probation after pleading guilty to failing to register some of his animals with the sheriff's department. Records also show that on May 5 of this year, Smith was fined $100 for improperly killing and disposing of an animal.

The Smiths, who've been collecting exotic animals for more than 30 years, did not return calls seeking comment. Since the August 3 attack, they've stated publicly that they plan to close the refuge and give their animals away to sanctuaries across the country.

Dan Zarlenga, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Conservation, says inspectors from his agency checked up on Wesa-A-Geh-Ya at least once a year to check on their menagerie of animals native to Missouri.

Zarlenga says he was surprised to learn that the USDA had not been inspecting the lions and tigers housed at Wesa-A-Geh-Ya.

"I was not aware that [the USDA] only inspected places if they had an exhibitor's license; that's interesting. No one had been regulating the tigers? That is a concern, but those particular species don't fall within in our realm of responsibility. We have no jurisdiction."

In St. Louis County, owners of exotic pets including tigers, bears and snakes more than ten feet long must purchase an insurance policy with a payout of $100,000 to ensure that the pet's owner can pay for damages should their animal injure someone.

John Shelton, spokesman for the St. Louis County Health Department, says no exotic animals are currently registered in the county.

In the City of St. Louis, meanwhile, owning big cats, bears, venomous snakes and other wild animals has been prohibited since 1982.

The Missouri legislature has considered several laws that would restrict big cat ownership. Most recently, in January State Senator Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican, sponsored a bill that would have banned private individuals from owning exotic species, including big cats, as pets. The bill died in committee.

"It seemed reasonable to me that we shouldn't allow just anybody to raise and care for these animals," says Dempsey. "With more oversight I believe [the attack in Warren County] could have been prevented. Unfortunately, that's sometimes how things get done. The legislature will be reactive rather than proactive."

Mike Sutherland, a state representative from Warrenton, says he's been trying in vain to secure legislation to restrict ownership of large carnivores since his first term in office in 2003. He says he initially heard about the issue at a town meeting in Warrenton where area residents expressed outrage about the unsupervised wildlife at Wesa-A-Geh-Ya.

"I'm not for regulation; I think less government is better," Sutherland says. "But if there's one thing we ought to keep an eye on, it's large cats that can eat you."

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