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Lions and tigers as pets: Should they roam freely?

Recent mauling in Las Vegas and other incidents add to push to regulate booming trade in exotic pets.

By Sara B. MillerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 14, 2003

They say dog is man's best friend.

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But for Victoria Windland-Paraska, a 15-month-old tiger named Tamu takes that title, along with 13 other grown tigers, leopards, and cougars that roam her 15-acre yard in central Florida.

Ms. Windland-Paraska is one of a number of Americans with a penchant for exotic pets. They're not difficult to find: A largely unregulated industry sells everything from leopards to Black Mane Lions on the Internet.

But owners of animals indigenous to the jungles of India or the safari lands of Africa are coming under increasing criticism. Two incidents - the recent mauling of performer Roy Horn during a Siegfried & Roy show in Las Vegas, and the discovery of a Bengal tiger and five-foot-long alligator in a Harlem apartment earlier this month - have prompted a debate over the wisdom of allowing novel creatures to roam freely in living rooms and backyards. The episodes have added momentum to calls for greater regulation of a booming trade in exotic pets.

"Many more people are keeping exotic pets today, because they are available," says Simon Habel, the director of TRAFFIC, World Wildlife Fund's wildlife trade monitoring network. "A pouched rat from Africa can be in your house a week after it was captured in Gambia."

A number of states and cities have recently considered laws to place more regulations on the industry, and a federal law is pending before Congress on interstate transport of large cats as pets - but many expect the trade in novel creatures will expand as public fascination in them grows.

Magic shows and television programs featuring pet tricks have helped fuel the misperception that tigers or lions can be trained and dominated, says Richard Farinato, Director of Captive Wildlife Protection for The Humane Society of the United States.

"Every time [a performer] goes out and kisses a tiger, people say, 'That's cool. I'd like to do that,' " Mr. Farinato says. This, in turn, contributes to fads, where the weirder the better. "Forget about the dog or cat. For them, different is a tiger on a leash."

My, what big teeth you have

But Mr. Habel says pet-owners don't realize how big, fast, and strong animals become when they grow up. "Look at a normal domestic situation. A little cat can attack your arm and leave a scratch or bite mark," he says. "Magnify the effect by 50, these animals only need to be playing with you to kill you."

Exotic pet ownership is not a new phenomenon. Tigers have occupied royal palaces for centuries. Spectators have been intrigued by animal performers in circuses and road shows since the 18th century. Now, the globalization of transportation and the Internet have helped expand the availability of the leashed animals from afar.

Faces of baby tiger cubs pop up for sale on myriad Internet sites. They usually cost under $400, the same a pure-bred puppy does. Sometimes they are advertised for free in magazines.

There are some 10,000 to 15,000 large cats in private hands in the US, according to an estimate by The Sacramento Animal Protection Institute, based in California. That's triple the amount of wild tigers in Asia, says Nicole Paquette, the group's legislative director.

A leash on exotic-pet owners