Former Pet Tigers Find Home in Tennessee Shelter

Max Block and Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic On Assignment
November 17, 2003

About 15 minutes west of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, just off Interstate 10, the Tiger Truck Stop keeps a 350-pound (160-kilogram) Siberian tiger named Tony.

Astonishing as it may seem, exotic big cats are permitted as pets, and in all sorts of moneymaking schemes in the United States, as long as owners abide by federal and state regulations.

Tony is among an estimated 15,000 big cats in captivity in the United States, including approximately 10,000 tigers in private hands—more than twice the number in the wild in Asia.

Periodically these "pets" make news, like the 400-pound (180-kilogram) Siberian-Bengal tiger, Ming, that lived in a Harlem apartment and mauled owner Antoine Yates, or the 24 Bengal tigers seized from New Jersey "tiger lady" Joan Byron-Marasek in Jackson Township.

Tiger Truck Stop owner Michael Sandlin kept four tigers until he agreed to give up three of them after the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited him for some violations.

He tracked down Mary Lynn Roberts, whose Tiger Haven, in rural Roane County, Tennessee, west of Knoxville, is one of the largest big-cat sanctuaries in the United States, with nearly 200 lions, tigers, leopards, pumas and jaguars on 50 acres (20 hectares).

Roberts had cared for abandoned, abused, and sick big cats for a couple of years before she incorporated Tiger Haven in 1993.

Roberts is self-schooled in the art of caring for exotic wild cats. She passed a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) exam for a permit to keep big cats. To develop Tiger Haven, she consulted fellow big-cat caretakers, veterinarians, breeders, and sanctuary owners.

Abused, Abandoned Cats

"Tennessee is the strictest state in the union [about] keeping dangerous wildlife—we have the toughest regulations," said Walter Cook, Captive Wildlife Coordinator for the TWRA, in Nashville.

"Tiger Haven is the most inspected and most regulated facility that holds dangerous wildlife in this country," said Cook. "They treat the animals very well and go to great extremes for these animals' therapy."

Among the inhabitants of Tiger Haven are Indira and her three cubs, raised by a taxidermist in Arkansas to be slaughtered, stuffed, mounted, and sold. Bhutan was a "picture cub"—posing for souvenir photos until she outgrew her job.

Continued on Next Page >>


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