SAN ANTONIO – Many San Antonio residents were shocked by recent reports of a tiger cub sighting at a Southwest Side house over the weekend, but animal rights activists say tigers held in captivity are actually common.
Even though captive tigers are a “serious threat,” the Humane Society of the United States said there are likely more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild across the world.
While it is unclear how many unregistered tigers are held captive in this state, there are 43 tigers on state records, according to data from the Department of State Health Services, which oversees ownership of exotic animals in Texas.
That includes one in Bastrop County, four in Guadalupe County, four in Potter County and 34 in Collin County, which is home to a wildlife rescue center.
Lara Anton, a spokesperson for the state health department, said wild animals must be registered with local animal control, and that registration is then submitted to the department. That isn’t required for animals in zoos, traveling circuses, research facilities and “some other circumstances,” she said.
Still, it is legal in much of Texas to privately own a big cat as a pet, according to the Humane Society of the United States. However, such ownership is prohibited in San Antonio and Bexar County.
Texas has a “significant welfare and safety problem” because incidents involving tigers are a “regular occurrence,” Lauren Loney, the Texas state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement to KSAT.
“The Humane Society of the United States strongly opposes keeping tigers and other wild animals as pets,” she said. “Captive tigers are a serious threat to public health and safety, and their welfare in conditions of private captivity is frequently poor.”
“Proper care requires experienced, professionally-trained caregivers; large enclosures that provide safe containment and opportunities to express natural behaviors; hands-off handling methods; appropriate diets; and proper veterinary care,” she said, adding that pet tigers are often found malnourished and under “psychological distress.”
Tigers kept as pets in Texas are often confiscated by law enforcement or Border Patrol agents, she said.
Other prohibited exotic animals in Bexar County and San Antonio include wolves, leopards, lions, crocodiles and bears, among others. Here’s an expanded list of prohibited animals in Bexar County, according to an order from the Commissioners Court:
Establishments or facilities that do own or house exotic animals, such as the San Antonio Zoo, must have approval and registration from the county, said Tom Peine, the assistant public information officer with the County Manager’s office.
The sighting of the tiger cub on Friday evening in the 8600 block of Elk Runner prompted an investigation by San Antonio’s Animal Care Service.
A woman called 911 and said she saw the tiger cub walking around in her backyard, but by the time officers arrived, the cat had left the property. Officers were able to contact a homeowner, who claimed he had the tiger cub at his residence for a few hours so he could show his family.
That person said he took the tiger back to its owner on the North Side, where there are also “several other tigers,” San Antonio police said Saturday.
Shannon Sims, interim director for ACS, told KSAT that officers are still investigating the incident, but they do not have a credible location for the tiger.
People who keep exotic animals as pets could receive a citation since they are illegal in San Antonio, according to ACS spokesperson Lisa Norwood.
Texas lawmakers in the 2019 Legislative session introduced Texas SB 641 that would have made it illegal to own an exotic animal such as a baboon, cheetah, lion, bear, snow leopard and hyena, among other species. It was referred to the House Public Health Committee and did not pass.
Last month, the The Big Cat Public Safety Act was re-introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives in an effort to clamp down on the exploitation of big cats. It would prohibit public contact with tigers, lions and other big cats, as well as ban ownership of them.
Norwood said more than 15 years have passed since ACS last helped retrieve a tiger from a San Antonio home.
“It is something that unfortunately has occurred,” she said.
ACS partners with agencies for wildlife removal when it comes to “cases that involve animals that are not your standard dog or cat,” she said. Those include game wardens with the Texas Parks and Wildlife, the San Antonio Zoo or different animal sanctuaries.
Dr. Rob Coke, director of veterinary care with the San Antonio Zoo, told KSAT that a tiger cannot simply be placed in a dog kennel or a backyard.
“These animals can climb and jump,” he said. “They are taller than you when they stand up, so it takes extraordinary care that most people are not able to give.”
Since 1990, pet tigers have killed two children and mauled three people in Texas, according to the Humane Society of the United States.