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from The Houston Chronicle


A TASTE FOR THE EXOTIC Climate, plentiful land make state a hotbed for rare, dangerous pets

July 27, 2002, 12:24AM


Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

John Stromsky spends his days feeding and cleaning up after seven tigers, two mountain lions and a black panther. Between the 10 of them, the animals eat 70 pounds a day of "salvage meat" -- free leftovers that meat companies give Stromsky by the truckload.

"It's not a glamorous job. You figure seven pounds of meat a day. What does that equate to in leftovers?" Stromsky said, in a delicate reference to his cleanup chores.

Stromsky's animals include the Bengal tiger he took in after it tore the arm off a 4-year-old boy in Channelview two years ago. He also cares for other animals whose owners could no longer keep them.

The cats live in an elaborate set of cages behind Stromsky's home in northeast Harris County. The cages are the best-tended part of his property, which is overrun with cars needing repairs and house cats that boldly swipe food from the tigers' cages.

Stromsky does not recommend keeping exotic pets, nor does the only other exotic cat owner in Harris County who would consent to an interview. Animal experts are vehemently opposed to the practice.

Although no one knows how many exotic animals are held in captivity, officials estimate there are 5,000 tigers held in the United States, 2,000 of which are in Texas. By comparison, there are about 3,500 tigers in the wild worldwide. Texas is a hotbed for exotic pets, experts say, because of its warm climate, plentiful land and Wild West mentality.

Authorities find out about dangerous pets when neighbors complain, the animals escape or when someone is injured.

It is legal to sell exotic animals, and breeders are not required to keep records of the sales. Although there are no federal laws regarding exotic pets, the Humane Society of the United States is urging Congress to pass a law banning interstate shipments of lions, tigers and bears for the pet trade.

Dangerous exotic animals are banned in Houston but are allowed in Harris County with a permit. Only four people in the county have or are seeking such permits, and four others have been forced to give up their dangerous pets after the county started regulating them in 2000.

Based on incidents in the past several years and the number of local breeders, authorities are sure there are many more of the animals in the Houston area.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found a starving 1-year-old lion in a horse trailer in northeast Harris County last week and seized it. Earlier this year, an 8-year-old girl peeked through a fence in a Houston neighborhood and saw a 500-pound Bengal tiger roaming next door. A black panther believed to be an escaped pet jumped into a back yard in Richmond last year and killed a pet schnauzer, and a 3-year-old boy was killed by his father's tiger in Lexington last year.

In five years with the Houston SPCA, chief cruelty investigator Jim Boller said he has taken in 59 exotic cats, a half dozen primates, countless wolves and wolf hybrids and three brown bears that a family of illegal immigrants smuggled from Russia to use in their circus act.

"(The people) were deported. We kept the bears," Boller said. The bears now live in a wildlife sanctuary in San Antonio.

Those who keep exotic animals are generally a taciturn bunch, reluctant to talk about the animals because of trouble with neighbors and the authorities.

Boller describes them as cutting across socioeconomic, age and gender lines but sharing a common characteristic of inflated egos.

"It's the same type of people who want the bigger, badder, nastier dog," he said. "(They think) if a Rottweiler will guard my house well, a tiger would be 10 times better."

Richard Farinato, the director of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said Texans started breeding such exotic "hoof stock" as zebras, giraffes and antelopes in the 1950s, then moved on to dangerous cats and other exotic animals.

He attributed Texans' passion for the animals partly to a "Wild West mentality ... They want something macho. They want something novel. They want something that will scare people, get attention."

Farinato said those who get into trouble with their exotic pets tend to be "the kinds of folks who live in a trailer or a double-wide with a cat in the back."

Big cats and poisonous snakes also are sometimes used to guard drugs.

Lion and tiger owner Suzette Stidom of Harris County said many who want to buy exotic cats cannot afford to feed them. She spends $12 a day on chicken parts for her two animals.

"They eat before I eat," she said. "You don't want a couple hungry cats in the back yard."

Stidom said she first got a lion 15 years ago, when she was "a kid" impressed by the novelty. She now owns a female lion and a male tiger that she keeps caged together in her back yard.

The two animals are affectionate with each other, and Stidom said they might mate, creating a "liger." Such crossbreeding is common enough that "liger" has become an accepted term, Farinato said.

"These folks are out there doing all kinds of strange things because, God bless America, it's a free country," said Farinato, who opposes keeping dangerous exotic animals as pets.

Although Boller accuses Stidom of selling exotic cats from her S&S Exotic Animals pet store, Stidom says she doesn't do so because most people cannot care for the animals.

"They end up in the wrong hands nine times out of 10," Stidom said. "You buy this little-bitty cat you think is cute. The thing grows up. Five hundred pounds later ... "

Instead, Stidom says she sells smaller animals such as monkeys, birds and sugar gliders, a tiny Australian marsupial.

Stromsky and Stidom keep their animals in cages, but Stromsky raised a mountain lion in his house with his three children, and Stidom kept her first lion in the living room while it was growing up.

Both pet and play with their animals.

"I can get in there and play with them, do whatever I want with them," Stidom said. "They're just big babies."

Stromsky even puts his hands in the mouth of Lory, the mountain lion he raised in his house. He said he has helped her give birth twice, putting his hands inside her to manipulate the babies.

"Ain't no veterinarian going to do that," he said.

Animal experts say those who believe they can turn several hundred pounds of wild animal into a docile pet are kidding themselves.

"Those are people with a death wish," Farinato said. "There is no way that that animal is safe."

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