Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge
The knowing eyes of Sammy the tiger, at the Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge in Texas.

Don’t Kill the Tigers! Go After the Idiots Who Keep Them as Pets!

Steve Russell
5/12/15

In 1993, Brian Werner finished his Navy hitch and moved his family to a 25-acre tract in the piney woods of East Texas, where they lived in a small cabin, off the grid. At the same time, I was on my first career as a trial court judge sitting in Austin, a distance away that only people in western states will appreciate. Werner and I did not cross paths at the time, but I have reason to wish we had, and that reason involved a lawsuit.

A tiger had mauled a child. It appeared from the serious injuries that the child’s head had at one time been in the tiger’s mouth, or very close to it. Assuming that animals can form intent, if the tiger had intended to kill, it easily could have.

The tiger was not on trial, but rather the fool who kept it as a “pet” and let it run free around children. However, at the time of the incident, the tiger was impounded and put in the care of the Humane Society.

That organization is known for sheltering dogs and cats, but they are the go-to outfit when stuff happens involving animals. I remember they had taken charge of some starved horses in an awful animal-neglect case and a bunch of goats that had been impounded when a truck driver left them in the heat and they began to die.

Dogs and cats, sure. Horses and goats, maybe. But a tiger? They were relieved when the lawsuit was over. The owner was not going to get the tiger back, having been found irresponsible with the animal once.

So the plan was to euthanize the tiger.

This rubbed me the wrong way. I had heard the evidence, and the tiger was not a particularly vicious animal. It was just a wild animal being treated like a big kitty by a stupid person. It was being a tiger.

I balked at signing the order. What, they asked me, did I propose to do with the tiger? The Humane Society was not a long-term option and the government was picking up the feeding bill. I agreed to work on the problem.

It did not take me very many phone calls to understand that zoos are not particularly interested in free tigers, unless the animals are one of the endangered subspecies, or so I was told at the time. I did, however, get the attention of people who care about big cats, and just about every phone call I made turned up several other numbers to try.

The process took months, during which I had to listen to periodic lectures about how I was being unreasonable, wasting taxpayer money, and generally being softheaded in a way unbecoming a judge. With the help of many concerned people, the tiger finally found a home, and I never had to sign the death warrant.

The Werner family in East Texas had, shortly after the time I was frantically hunting for a placement, begun taking in itinerant tigers that were no longer cute little cubs. In 1995, the Werners formed the Tiger Missing Link Foundation. Their purpose was to document the problem that had hit me in the face, tigers living outside of accredited zoos.

A couple of years later, they prevailed on the National Institutes of Health to take DNA samples from the tigers in their care. One of the castaways they were caring for turned out to be a rare and endangered Indochinese tiger. Those cats have been nearly wiped out by folklore about the medicinal properties of their bones and other parts. Tiger penises are said to be aphrodisiacs for humans.

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