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.

Sasha came from a drive-through safari in Bastrop, Texas; Dolly, from a roadside zoo in Columbia, South Carolina.

Many of the cats at Tiger Haven arrive in good health—others not-so-good. Amateur video footage at a roadside zoo in South Carolina revealed a mountain lion so undernourished that it was eating another mountain lion that had fallen ill and died.

The roadside zoo was shut down immediately and a frantic search began to place the cats. Within hours, Roberts was there.

Kalahari was one of the rescued cats—thin, with a spine injury from a blow by a lead pipe and with paws burned when somebody dumped bleach in his cage.

"He's still small for a male lion, but as malnourished and as small as he was when we first got him, we're all surprised that he looks as good as he does," Roberts said.

Another critical case was Tsavo, from a private owner who couldn't cope with the baby lion's increasingly painful skin condition. Finally, the owner called Roberts.

Sudden Surgery

Caring for the cats is a full-time job. Roberts lives at the sanctuary. She works with 12 staffers.

"They work around the clock. I don't know if they ever sleep. They really live for their animals," said Edward Ramsay, a big cat specialist at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, in Knoxville, and a consulting veterinarian for the Knoxville Zoo. Ramsay is a frequent visitor to Tiger Haven.

The most complicated, expensive, and emotionally draining part of caring for the cats is looking after their health. A case in point is Cimba, a 19-year-old "liger"—half-lion, half-tiger "retired" from a circus.

For the past five years Cimba has suffered a recurring uterine infection. A hysterectomy seemed to be the only hope to save her.

"After having her for ten years, we're all very attached to her," Roberts said. "After you take care of these animals seven days a week, 24 hours a day, they're part of your family. It's no different to us than taking a member of the family to have a serious operation."

Last month Roberts took Cimba to the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine—one of the few animal hospitals in the country with the know-how to perform such an operation.

After hours of surgery, the vets removed a 40-pound (18-kilogram) tumor.

Two days later, back at Tiger Haven for recovery, Cimba was on her feet. Within three days she was eating.

"You'd never know that Cimba had surgery if they hadn't shaved her," Roberts said. "Now she's the enthusiastic foster mother to three lion cubs born at the haven. She just loves all babies, striped, spotted or white." Orphan big cats find foster mothers where they can.

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