They say dog is man's best friend.
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."
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.
It is impossible to know how widespread exotic pet ownership is, however. While the Department of Agriculture monitors the commercial animal trade under the Animal Welfare Act - including breeding centers, zoos, and circuses - private pet owners fall out of their jurisdiction, says Ed Curlett, a department spokesman.
No federal law bans ownership of exotic pets, and existing state laws and county regulations vary widely. Currently 19 states ban possession of exotic animals as pets.
Ms. Paquette is currently trying to push a bill to ban ownership in Washington State. The group helped introduce a resolution passed in Cleveland in 2002, banning most large cats and prairie dogs, she says.
The movement to regulate the industry has irked pet owners. Many say that, far from mistreating the animals, they're as well looked after and loved as other household pets.
"This is a rights issue," says Jeanne Hall, president of the Phoenix Exotic Wildlife Association in Washington State. "They'd like to take away any sort of kitty or dog. But if there are 15,000 large cats in private hands, where are all the terrible accidents? Most of us are not lunatics."
Ms. Hall, who owns bobcats and cougars, in addition to birds, geese, chickens, and dogs, says the best way to assure safety for the animals and the general public is through education and self-regulation.
The responsibility and cost is worth it for many owners. "I love my cats, there is no greater bond I have," says Ms. Windland-Paraska, who estimates she spends about $10,000 a year on pet food. (Owning a tiger as a pet in Florida is illegal but not if it is shown in fairs.) "When they see 'mom' coming in they chuff at me. It just melts my heart," she says.
Owners who don't face up to the responsibility of looking after wild animals are the ones who make headlines, putting other owners on the defensive.
Looking after such creatures is not an easy task, says Louis Dorfman, an animal behaviorist of the International Exotic Feline Sanctuary in Texas. "Exotic pets are inappropriate," he says. Too often, he says, people buy them on impulse without fully understanding the dangers and obligations.
The expense of maintaining such a pet is considerable, for starters. Within a few years, a tiger cub will probably expand to 500 pounds and feed on 10 to 12 pounds of horse or beef a day.
For some, that's too much of a burden - as Mr. Dorfman can easily attest. The animal expert cares for animals that have been abandoned or confiscated. Currently, he has 68 large cats under his care, including 21 tigers.
People also fail to realize they danger they represent, says Dorfman. That's one of the reasons why he has been trying to get a bill passed pushing for stricter regulation of exotic-pet ownership in Texas, where half of the nation's large cats are believed to reside.
"I can curl up in the hay with a cat one day, and the next I won't even want to be seven feet away," he says.
There have been more than 150 dangerous incidents involving captive big cats since 1990, according to documentation on the website of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The incidents have resulted in 39 deaths, including those of eight children. Animal-rights advocates also point to diseases brought into the country by captive pets as another reason why they'd like to see more regulation of the practice.
But the desire to own exotic animals is not likely to wane anytime soon.
"We are the biggest consumers of wildlife in the world," says Farinato. "As long as it is available, people will continue to buy."