Ivan is a playful, 7-year-old cat – a "sweet boy," according to the Houston SPCA. He desperately needed a home, but he was never featured on the animal-protection agency's "pick of the litter" Web page.
That's because the nearly 400-pound mixed-breed tiger is too big to roam around a private house or backyard – just the situation he was rescued from this spring.
Recently, Ivan was given refuge at a Florida animal sanctuary after months of temporary shelter at the Houston Zoo. He is one of a large group of exotic animals confiscated from a ranch in Gonzales County, Texas, and one of the few so far to have found a permanent home.
The plight of these animals highlights the increasing problem of private citizens keeping wild animals as pets – and the even larger problem of what to do with them after authorities seize them.
"Ten years ago, it was a rare thing for us to house a tiger or an African lion, but it has become a regular part of the work we do," says Patricia Mercer, president of the Houston SPCA. "The laws are so lax and the animals so easy to come by, it's like trying to put your finger in the dike to hold back these large numbers of animals living in backyards and apartments."
Six years ago, the Houston SPCA built large enclosures as the number of confiscated wild animals began to rise. These days, every cage is filled and plenty of energy expended on finding appropriate homes.
The Internet is a major factor in the rapid increase in private ownership of exotic animals, experts say. It makes the animals much easier to find and much cheaper to buy. A decade ago, for instance, a tiger cub might cost $10,000, but today can be found for as little as $500.
The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 15,000 monkeys and as many as 15,000 big cats – 5,000 to 7,000 of which are tigers – are being kept as pets in the US.
"That's more than there are tigers left in the wild," says Richard Farinato, director of the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Murchison, Texas, and a captive-wildlife expert with the Humane Society.
In Boston, for example, zoo authorities have reported a surge in overnight drop-offs of exotic pets by owners who were evidently overwhelmed by caring for the specialized animals.
In addition, people keep an estimated 300,000 wolf hybrids – several of which mauled their owner to death last week in Pennsylvania. Even wild animals that are bred in captivity, experts say, are dangerous and can attack unexpectedly.
In April, for example, a 500-pound Bengal tiger being kept as a pet attacked and killed its owner in Minnesota. In December, celebrity heiress Paris Hilton was attacked by her pet kinkajou, which she had taken shopping with her in Los Angeles. She purchased the raccoon-related animal in Las Vegas and had to get rid of it when she learned it is illegal to have exotic pets in California without a permit.
Earlier this month, the Senate approved the Captive Primate Safety Act, which seeks to end the interstate and foreign trade in primates. The bill is currently being considered by the House of Representatives. Congress enacted a similar measure in 2003 for lions, tigers, and other big cats.
But for the most part, the issue has been left to the states.
Currently, 35 states have some kind of regulation in place governing the sale, possession, or use of captive wild animals – though 15 have none whatsoever.
Many people who buy exotic animals and have them shipped to their homes don't know what federal and state laws govern their ownership and aren't told by the seller.
Last month, for example, a mother in Manchester, N.H., had a wallaby confiscated from her home by the state fish and game department. New Hampshire law requires that anyone owning an exotic animal be licensed as an exhibitor.
The woman had purchased the wallaby for $1,500 over the Internet as a graduation gift for her daughter, and could face both state and federal fines.
Even with tough laws, enforcement is often difficult because many cities don't have the resources or ability to house such large animals.
Gonzales County, for instance, knew about the 11 bears, two tigers, and one macaw for a couple years, but didn't have the means to transport and house them. So the rural county eventually called the more populous Harris County for help. But even for large municipalities, it's becoming increasingly difficult to find homes for confiscated animals because of their growing numbers.
"We are constantly harassing zoos and sanctuaries," says Ms. Mercer. "But the reality is there is no place over the rainbow for these animals." From the Gonzales group, eight bears – including two grizzlies – are still awaiting homes. Mercer says she will not euthanize the wild animals, as is routinely done with dogs and cats at the shelter after a certain length of time, no matter how long it takes to find them a home.
But Mr. Farinato says officials should consider euthanasia – especially as numbers grow.
"Nobody wants to face the idea, and there is great resistance to it because we think these animals are somehow different. But, in reality, there is no difference," Farinato says.