Me and My Pet Tiger: "Trespassers Will Be Eaten"

By Philip Bethge

Eccentric private citizens in the United States own more tigers than exist in the wild worldwide. But owning big cats can be a dangerous hobby, especially when the animals turn on their owners.

Gloria Johnson plays with her tiger Casanova.
AP

Gloria Johnson plays with her tiger Casanova.

Vincent Lowe, 49, didn't even have enough time to fire his .357 caliber pistol. In one powerful leap, the 500-pound tiger crashed through the brittle wire of its cage and pinned Lowe to the ground. The tiger's bite fractured Lowe's neck like a bread stick, killing him almost instantaneously.

"He was not supposed to work that close to the tiger's cage. He ignored every rule in the book and provoked the cat!" Robert Baudy is sitting in his living room, darkened by heavy drapes, wearing khaki-colored safari clothing and looking like an octogenarian reincarnation of Dr. Marsh Tracy from the 1960's TV series "Daktari."

"I picked up one of my rifles and ran over to him," says Baudy. "I had to shoot my own tiger!" But then a smile flickers across the face of the 83-year-old. "With an excellent rifle, by the way, a .22 magnum, German-made. It only took me two shots."

Baudy clearly enjoys playing the part of the big game hunter. A native Frenchman, Baudy has spent the last 30 years raising tigers, lions, pumas and leopards in Center Hill, Florida. Thousands of big cats have been born under the ancient oaks on Baudy's farm, "Savage Kingdom." Baudy apparently views the death of his employee, Vincent Lowe, as little more than a workplace accident. But for others the case merely emphasizes the absurdity of the tiger industry.

"I'm the enemy number one in the cat business, according to animal rights activists," says Baudy. He gazes thoughtfully at an enormous painting of two tigers in the snow hanging on his living room wall. "You know," says the tiger breeder, "those activists are just a bunch of nuts. Is it my fault if people don't know how to handle these animals?"

Welcome to America, the land of the predator. There are more tigers living in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Estimates range from 10,000 to 15,000 animals. By comparison, experts believe that there are at most 7,000 tigers living in the wild worldwide.

Thousands of Americans have succumbed to a fascination with the biggest and strongest of all predatory big cats. Breeders like Baudy supply the industry with cuddly baby tigers. But the kittens soon grow into big, powerful animals, quickly becoming too much for many owners to handle. Animal rights activists are critical of the practice because many of the animals, crippled and traumatized, end up spending their final days in bleak roadside zoos.

This world, fueled by an odd mix of adrenaline, dried cat urine and the slightly pungent odor of the fresh meat tigers eat in bulk on a daily basis, is especially prevalent in Florida. This sort of eccentricity that would prompt someone to buy a tiger is evident to anyone who drives through the glitzy artificial world of West Palm Beach. A sign on the heavy metal gate of Steve Sipek's estate says it all: "Trespassers will be eaten." The 64-year-old actor, who once played Tarzan, doesn't just own tigers as pets. He literally lives, sleeps and cuddles with them. In fact, Sipek has transformed his entire house into a cage for big cats. Visitors to the former king of the jungle's home enter a narrow passageway through a rickety door. The lord of the manor sits with two of his cats, Bo and Little Bo, in a room behind a wire-mesh fence. A thin metal bar is the only thing preventing the two tigers from breaking out of the enclosure.

Sipek is a giant of a man. Using the stage name Steve Hawkes, he acted in films like "Tarzan, King of the Jungle" and "Tarzan and the Brown Prince" in the 1960s and 70s. He also played a blood-drinking giant turkey in an obscure B movie called "Blood Freak." But being a tamer of big cats is the role of his life. Sipek says he experienced an awakening of sorts when a lion chained to his arm once pulled him out of a burning film set, and he has believed that he was chosen to take care of big cats ever since.

"Touching a tiger is like touching the face of God," says Sipek. He has cared for more than 100 big cats in his house over the years. "I saved my cats from a life in a cage," he claims. "They can even use the pool here."

Then it's feeding time. Sipek's girlfriend Kathi drags in two buckets of turkey drumsticks. Sipek is in his element. He holds out the meat at eye level, and the 300-pound cats jump over and eat from his hand. Dessert is milk mixed with egg, served from a baby bottle.

The cats pay almost no attention to strangers. But if a person turns his back on one of the tigers, it immediately becomes nervous and instinctively crouches as if to pounce. The tension is almost palpable. The person suddenly feels like prey.

Officer Jesse Lee must have felt that way when Sipek's tiger Bobo charged him two years ago in July. According to the report by the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC), "the tigers teeth were showing and his ears were pinned back. Lee stepped back as he fired five rounds from his semi-automatic AR-15." The tiger lay dead in the bushes. It was 5:20 in the afternoon.

Bobo had escaped from Sipek's private zoo the day before. Police officers, wildlife management officers from the FWC and Sipek himself pursued the cat. The tiger was spotted several times, but the stun darts the officers fired missed their target. In the end, Jesse Lee shot the tiger.

Sipek buried the cat in his front yard. Bobo's grave is decorated with flowers and animal sculptures. "I wanted to kill that bastard officer bigtime," says Sipek. "My friends didn't want to let me, but I would have done it."

But according to Lieutenant Charles Dennis of the FWC, "the officer followed agency policy. A 700-pound tiger will injure or kill people. When he grabs you, he has grabbed you. There's no maybes, no ifs, no buts. He's gonna kill you." The heavyset officer sits in his office at the FWC, wearing a cowboy hat, vest and sunglasses. Dennis believes it is far too easy to acquire big cats.

"In my opinion, we have to be stricter on people who own tigers," says Dennis, "let me show you why." He flips open his laptop. A series of blood-covered, mutilated people flashes across the screen. The last image is of a woman with her throat slit open. "Joy Holiday was an animal trainer. The same tiger killed someone else two months earlier." Why wasn't the tiger put down? "You know," says Dennis, "most Americans look at it this way: 'If you own a tiger, then it's your problem if that tiger decides to eat you.'"

According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, five people have been killed by big cats since 2003 in the US alone. More than 40 others have been injured, some severely. In many cases it is the supposed cat experts who become victims. Show star Roy Horn is a famous example. Horn, who with his partner Siegfried Fischbacher formed the world-famous duo Siegfried & Roy, was attacked by a tiger three years ago during a performance at the Hotel Mirage in Las Vegas. The animal, named Montecore, bit into the performer's neck and dragged the helpless man from the stage. Horn narrowly survived the incident.

Children have also been killed. Americans are fond of taking posed Polaroid pictures with big cats. It was this kind of photo opportunity that killed 17-year-old Haley Hilderbrand last August. She was posing for a photo next to a tiger in a private zoo in Mound Valley, Kansas. To this day, no one knows why Haley suddenly bent forward. The tiger plunged its teeth into her neck, killing Haley on the spot.

Even these kinds of incidents haven't discouraged big cat enthusiasts from allowing their tigers to interact with children. Gloria Johnson, a cat lover from the town of Havana in northern Florida, even refers to "wildlife education" as her mission in life. "There have to be just a few specially, highly trained people to teach children about what extinction means," says Johnson. "It means never again."

Of course, the 51-year-old Johnson counts herself among these cat experts. She bought her one-and-a-half-year-old white tiger Casanova from Baudy for a special price of $5,000. "I volunteered for Robert for a long time," she explains, "a white baby tiger normally goes for $15,000." Yellow tigers, she adds, can be had for as little as $1,200.

Johnson took out a second mortgage so that she could buy Casanova. Her simple wooden house is filled with cat paraphernalia. Groups of schoolchildren regularly crowd into her living room to admire the tiger and her two pumas, Ashukalee and Lakota, in her back yard.

"I even took Casanova into schools until he was six months old," says the petite Johnson. She would put the animal, which already weighed 100 pounds at the time, on a leash to show it to the children. Johnson is convinced that the lessons are valuable to kids: "When they look into the eyes of a live tiger, it's an experience they will not get on the Internet or on TV."

Johnson portrays herself in the role of the petite blonde dominating the tiger in her personal version of "Beauty and the Beast." But animal rights activists say that publicity-hungry cat fans like Johnson merely boost the cat trade because they create even more hype for big cats.

"Gloria walks her tiger on a leash and takes him to school, while at the same claiming that tigers are not pets," says Carole Baskin, "that's just bullshit." The platinum blonde from Tampa, Johnson's arch enemy, made a fortune in real estate and used to invest in the big cat breeding business. "I used to think that I was doing something to help protect the species," says Baskin, "but I know today that none of the industry's money goes into conservation."

Nowadays Baskin strongly opposes private ownership of tigers. She runs an animal sanctuary in Tampa called Big Cat Rescue, which is essentially a home for the rejects of the big cat industry. Retired circus cats live out their final years at the facility, which also provides a home for unwanted tigers.

Auroara, a tigress, is a little bit cross-eyed, has a decent overbite and her legs are deformed. "She's a typical example of what they call a throwaway tiger," says Baskin's colleague Scott Lope. "Auroara is the result of the extreme inbreeding that's customary in the industry to breed sought-after white tigers." But Auroara was not born white and was sold off on the cheap to a private owner. "He just dropped her off here at some point."

Shere Khan is another example. "He has weak bones, bad teeth and his legs are much too short," says Lope. "He probably grew up in a cage that was much too small and didn't get the right nutrition, so that he wasn't able to develop properly."

"At some point tigers become too big and too strong for just about all handlers," says Baskin. She says she is tired of running a sort of refugee camp for rejected big cats, and wants to see stricter legislation on the books. "Ten states have absolutely no restrictions," she says, adding that while Florida does have laws to regulate the industry, they are almost impossible to enforce. "The law requires 1,000 hours of experience with big cats before you can own a tiger. But the problem is that the ones who are certifying that experience are the ones selling the tigers."

On the grounds of Robert Baudy's "Savage Kingdom," this sort of criticism seems like activist chatter from a faraway world. There is something timeless and eternal about Baudy's big cats as they move lithely through their enclosures. "I don't understand all the excitement," says Baudy. "Sixty thousand Americans get hurt by horses every year, but only two or three get wounded by tigers." He gently scratches tiger Romeo through the bars of the animal's cage. The sound of the cat's purring echoes like rolling thunder.

Baudy wistfully surveys his sun-drenched property. He knows that his days are numbered. "I'm on the way to extinction," he says. He still owns 17 big cats. Two female tigers are pregnant and will soon give birth.

But this time Baudy won't be selling the baby tigers. There were consequences to Vincent Lowe's death. After more than 30 years in the business, this tiger breeder has lost his license.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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