Pride Lands
Reprint of an article found in the Houston Chronicle, Sunday June 22, 1997

Darling—but dangerous

by James Pinkerton

Sales of wild animals flourish in Texas because high-powered lobbyists and public interest in exotic ‘pets’ fuel the market—despite dangers to humans and animals alike.

   Boerne—All but concealed in a tangle of oak and cedar outside this quaint Hill Country town, Lynn Cuny runs an orphanage for cougars, bobcats and jaguars, wolves, alligators and a host of other “pets” that their owners couldn’t handle.
   “You show some unassuming, unaware member of the public this little cub that is spotted, has blue eyes, chirps like a bird, and they’ll write a check easily,” said Cuny, who founded the nonprofit Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation Inc. 20 years ago.
   “And they’re told, ‘Yes, they get a little larger, but they stay very compatible with your family members. And they’ll like to play with the (other) pets. And if you don’t treat them rough, and spend a lot of time with them, they’ll act like a big dog.”
   “Which is an absolute lie.”
   A hundred and fifty miles away, at Zutu Exotics, a three-acre animal farm outside Hearne, Rudy Ryder sells cuddly black panther cubs for $2500 each.
   “The main people who buy from us are people who have a lot of money,” Ryder said. “They have a lot of money, they’ll put some habitat around their home, and have their friends come over to have a martini and watch the cats.”
   Ryder and Cuny are on opposite sides of a growing debate over Texas’ booming exotic animal trade. The rhetoric grows more heated each time a child is mauled by an animals whose owner couldn’t control it.
   “There is not hardly anything good that can happen from having a big cat in private hands," said Jim Stinebaugh, a longtime U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent stationed in San Antonio. “Even if you don’t care about the animals, it could end up in a tragedy where a human gets hurt. With all the young’uns around, they are going to get hurt.”
   In Austin this year, the influence of private animal owners and breeders prevailed. Lobbyists blocked a legislative effort to bring some regulation to the trade. The bill, unanimously approved in the state Senate, was held up in a House committee and never saw a vote.
   “They’re not going to tell me what I’m going to breed, no, that’s my constitutional right,” said Ryder. “Don’t tell me you’re going to come in and take my animals because I won’t spay or neuter them.”
   “That’s the state (of Texas) trying to do what the government has been trying to do to us all along, and that’s screw us.”
   Ryder also proudly noted his own screening of prospective buyers. He tries to weed out drug dealers, who buy big cats to protect their merchandise, and canned hunt promoters looking for older animals. He also avoids adults in their 20s, who tend to be impulse buyers likely to return the animal, and won’t sell a big cat to a family with children.
   “Last night a man called me, an idiot from Houston, who wants to get his daughter a unique gift, and the girl is 4 years old,” said Ryder. “So he he wants a baby African lion because he always wanted one as a child. I said, ‘Where are you going to keep him?’ And he said they were going to keep it in the house and would that be a problem?
   “I said, ‘yes, he’s going to eat her.’” Ryder said he advised the man to buy his daughter a stuffed toy.

[Edited for space]
   The senator’s staff has assembled details on recent maulings by wild animals, including several that occurred while the bill was being considered by the Legislature.
The list is long and grisly:
   •March 12: a 13-year-old boy was attacked by a tiger and lion kept in a cage built onto the side of his grandfather’s home near Caldwell. “My son was not mauled,” Jodie Grubbs Jr. told the Bryan-College Station Eagle. “He was being eaten alive.” The boy spent a week in the hospital, but did not suffer permanent damage.
   •April 3: Two-year-old James Ramos was rushed to a hospital after he was attacked by a male bobcat, one of two in violation of city ordinance in a north Dallas home of his mother’s boyfriend. Animal control workers investigating the attack said the boy – who was bitten on the cheek, finger and heel – is recovering.
   •April 28: The mother of an animal care worker at a Luther, Okla., cat breeding farm was killed and partially eaten by a rare Persian leopard. The woman, who was visiting her son and not a trained worker, was alone at the facility and was attempting to feed the cat.
   •May 8: Big cat owner Gene Light of Lubbock was seriously injured when he entered the cage to work with one of his tigers. Light’s son and a friend had to shoot the tiger – while his owner’s head was still in the big cat’s jaws.
   Law officers often first discover potentially dangerous animals in their community when they arrive to answer an emergency call.

[Edited for space]
   The big cats, even if they are not declawed and defanged, cannot be returned to the wild because most were raised in captivity, Cuny said. They have not been taught to hunt and have been conditioned to seek out humans to provide food.

[Edited for space]
   Still, many wildlife breeders see themselves as the last hope for many of the critically endangered big cats.
   “People don’t understand, especially these animal activists who think they know everything, that in the wild, the life expectancy of a big cat is five years,” said Mickey Sapp, a San Antonio-area animal breeder.
   “They kill them for their hides and bones, and now (poachers in Asia) have switched from the rhino horn to the tiger bones - they grind up the tiger bones to make an aphrodisiac. Tigers are about to be wiped off the face of the Earth.”
   Sapp, who advertises big cats for sale in the newspaper, can often be seen hawking tiger cubs alongside highways outside of San Antonio.
   “People like me, we are trying to conserve these animals, and we’re one of the last few states that are allowed to have this,” Sapp said. “I’d hate to see that right taken away from us.”

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