Inside the world of exotic animal ownership

About a year ago, on an April afternoon, Al Wolter drove to his neighbor’s house in Sandstone to help with a controlled burn. The neighbor, Cynthia Gamble, a wild-animal trainer, was his best female friend and the two regularly shared cocktails and sang karaoke together on his home machine. “She had an earthy sense of humor,” he said, an affectionate way of indicating that Cyndi could tell a good dirty joke. Gamble seemed to be most comfortable with male friends and often phoned Wolter to let off steam about personal problems. Lately, the problems had been mounting. Her business partner, Craig Wagner, had just left the state with a majority of their holdings, and her fourteen-year-old son Garrett was floundering in school.

Wolter unlocked Gamble’s front gate and, seeing that his friend wasn’t around, shot hoops for a while with Garrett. The two then walked through a pasture where a musk ox grazed and headed toward the modified pole barn Garrett shared with his mother. Inside the barn, the living quarters were separated by sliding glass doors from a row of twenty large cages. Three of the cages contained tigers, the B-grade animals Gamble had agreed to keep when her exotic-cat business, the Center for Endangered Cats, went bust. The animals were not trainable and Wolter knew that Gamble took care of them only because they had nowhere else to go. One in particular, a ten-year-old Bengal named Tango, was notably vicious. Said Wolter: “She knew this tiger was a killer.”

Cyndi wasn’t afraid of the tigers, cougars, jaguars, servals, coyotes, and caracals she’d trained and worked with for more than twenty years. Nor did she kid herself by considering them pets. She followed meticulous feeding procedures, especially with the tigers, which could consume more than ten pounds of food per day. Feeding them wasn’t what you’d call fun. It meant opening a small, six-by-eighteen-inch window and throwing in large chunks of the meat she kept in a freezer. Once, when Wolter was helping out, he tossed a slab and missed the window. When he moved forward to retrieve it, Gamble hollered in a booming voice, “Get out of there!” Wolter leapt back in a heartbeat.

Garrett entered the section of the barn where the cats were kept and walked toward Tango’s cage, which was partially covered by a sheet of plywood. Something made him yell and run for a .22 rifle, calling to Wolter to shoot the tiger. Unarmed, Wolter approached the cage, where Tango was roaring and leaping against the sides. A safety door—a remotely controlled guillotine contraption—had been left open, which was unusual, not to mention dangerous. It was then that he looked beyond the piece of plywood and saw a tableau that will remain with him always. His friend Cynthia Gamble’s nude and destroyed body lay limp on the floor of the tiger’s cage. Tango had stripped her of clothing before eating her breasts and both arms up to the elbows and then licking her clean of blood.

The tiger had to be tranquilized in order to retrieve Gamble’s body. And then, of course, it was killed. The news cameras rolled and reporters tried to explain how such a situation had come to be. They concluded that Cyndi, who two years previously had filed for bankruptcy and taken a job at a local casino, had been struggling to scrounge up enough meat to keep the tigers adequately fed. In fact, she’d fallen back on donations of road-killed deer. The tiger, given the opportunity, had attacked because it was starving. Tango and the other two cats were at least one hundred pounds underweight.

And so it was that Cyndi Gamble—passionate animal lover, professional wrangler in films and demonstrations, author, film editor, conservationist, amateur biologist, mother, wife, daughter, and ultimately victim to her life’s work—became the tragic public face of a very private and reticent network of exotic-wildlife owners. For that brief moment, the lights flashed on and the average person realized that some of their fellow Minnesotans kept tigers and lions and bears in their backyards next to swing sets and tomato plants. And then, just as suddenly, the lights flashed off again.

From the time we are children, our imaginations are filled with animals. We surround ourselves with furry companions—dogs and cats and rabbits and gerbils—that we imagine admire and love us. And when we want to test our limits and step up to examine our true place in the ancient pecking order, we surround ourselves with wild animals. We swim with dolphins, dangle in shark-infested waters, and have our yearbook pictures taken with purring white tigers. According to psychologist Chilla Bulbeck, who studies human relationships with dolphins and monkeys, zoo attendance “far exceeds that at professional sporting events; the amount of money spent by pet owners on their animals exceeds that spent by parents on baby food; and the amount of mail received by the U.S. Congress regarding the protection of animals exceeds that received in relation to Vietnam. It is claimed that wildlife programs attract higher audience ratings than soap operas, and natural history books are always high on bestseller lists.”

What we see when we look into an animal’s eyes—entertainment, sport, friend, food—depends on the particular way in which we’ve mythologized them. We project upon animals our fears and hopes. We manipulate them to our wills. And sometimes when we look, we see ourselves. As Schopenhauer wrote in 1851, “In the heart of every man there lies a wild beast which only waits for an opportunity to storm and rage, in its desire to inflict pain on others, or, if they stand in his way, to kill them.”

On the way to the grocery store or the boring nine-to-five job, it may seem as though the wild beast has been ultimately tamed, that Americans have clipped the fringes of wildness from our lives. Instead of, say, chasing down and killing a wildebeest, we get our thrills vicariously, through “extreme” television shows. When it comes to wildlife programs in particular, old gents like Marlin Perkins from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom have been replaced by showmen like Jack Hanna and the late Steve Irwin, who delight in scaring us with their lighthearted to deadly wrestling with the natural world. Our lust to touch the untamed has taken us full circle it seems, to a time of gladiatorial combat with lions and bears, even if we are merely distant spectators. Perhaps people like Cynthia Gamble, people who own exotic animals, are not content simply to watch. More than most, they wish to skate along the thin ice of the pond.

Tammy Quist is another of Gamble’s neighbors in Sandstone, a town that seems to be a sort of wild-pet mecca (yet another neighbor, Lee Greenly, owns the wildlife park where country singer Troy Lee Gentry shot and killed a captive bear named Cubby). Quist has worked for years with large cats, but she doesn’t defend private ownership of lions and tigers. Her experiences instead have convinced her that the practice must end. Though Quist acknowledged that there are responsible owners, she said, “the cons outweigh the pros” and too often animals are mistreated or keepers are injured. Just weeks before Gamble’s death, Quist had expanded her nonprofit retirement home for rescued cats, called The Wildcat Sanctuary, from a ten-acre facility in Isanti County to a forty-acre spread in Sandstone. Unlike Gamble’s struggling business, which was concerned with showing animals in action films, wildlife videos, commercials, and other “edutainment” settings, Quist’s rescue operation is thriving. She reports that in 2005 alone, the Sanctuary rescued one hundred wild cats.

Many animals aren’t so lucky. Ask groups like PETA why they oppose the private ownership of exotic pets and they’ll say that when an animal like a tiger attacks a person, perhaps because of the actions of the person, perhaps because of the animal’s very nature, it’s the cat that pays the price. Often they are euthanized, such as after Gamble’s death. As of April, according to the PETA website circuses.com, big cats had killed seventeen people in as many years in the U.S. Most were professionals working with the animals; at least two were amateurs posing for photographs, a practice banned by the USDA. Since 1990, the site says, there have been 426 non-fatal injuries involving captive wildlife (including primates, bears, and elephants). These injuries often result from people sticking their arms where they don’t belong or idiotically breaking into zoo enclosures. PETA materials state that “70 big cats have been killed because of these [human-related] incidents.”

Mary Hartman, a Rochester woman whose young daughter was bitten in 2001 and dragged into the woods by a neighbor’s pet tiger, believes that keeping undomesticated animals “creates the illusion that you’re getting a piece of the wild.” The illusion, she said, disguises the reality, where animals are abused or neglected by people who don’t know how to care for them. Nor, she said, do these owners have much regard for the safety of other people.

Ironically, wildlife specialists note that while tigers are in danger of extinction in the wild, the captive U.S. population is reaching “epidemic” proportions. India is home to the largest number of wild tigers, with just under five thousand. It’s estimated that there are three times as many in our country, not including those in official zoos. Private owners argue that the numbers, which are based on scant information, have been exaggerated, yet it’s generally accepted among zoo officials that there are fifteen to twenty-five thousand privately-kept tigers living in the U.S. (the Humane Society of the United States puts the number at ten thousand). There are no official estimates for Minnesota, but Tammy Quist receives more than thirty calls per month from locals who can no longer handle their exotic cats.

Statistics like these led the state, in 2005, to enact a statute that prohibits “purchasing, obtaining, or owning certain exotic animals … ” The list includes all cats (except domestic), bears, all non-human primates, and any hybrid cross between these animals. The law doesn’t apply to people with USDA licenses, such as research facilities, breeders, dealers, and zoos. Nor would the law have made a bit of difference to Cynthia Gamble. Existing captive wild animals were grandfathered in, though owners now have to register even these animals with the state Board of Animal Health. So far, the BAH has registered forty-six felids. The law hasn’t exactly coaxed enthusiasts out of hiding.

Last July, Congress began debating a federal bill that would ban most human contact with wild animals. Owners staged a mini-protest, posting to the web dozens of pictures of themselves lounging with their pussycat tigers and lions. No photo was more stunning than one submitted by a Czech tiger handler in Las Vegas. While animal-rights groups have Pamela Anderson and Tippi Hedren, exotic-animal owners have Zuzana Kukol, a passionate and sometimes irascible voice for liberty in these matters. She cites her background as a political refugee as the pilot light that heats her furor against restrictive legislation. Kukol, who is blond and has the body of a stripper, shows herself swimming in a brilliant turquoise pool, her head held erect, her hair dry and neat, and her teeth bared in a wide, pure white smile. The white tiger swimming beside her looks as flawless and expensive as a porcelain tchotchke in a casino gift shop.

The federal bill was sent to a Department of Agriculture subcommittee in August, where it awaits consideration. In a January letter to Cat Fancy magazine, Kukol wrote, “All it takes is one big cat attack or any rare incident involving an exotic species, for the local and state governments to go into action doing the only thing they know how to do—write and pass more laws … If the government reacted this way to every non-animal-related accident we face in our lives, even balloons and chocolate would be illegal by now.”

People acquire exotic animals in a variety of ways—through networks of friends and like-minded collectors, publications, and even zoos. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums provides accreditation to nearly all big-city zoos, yet, say critics, most are underfunded and overcrowded. Besides that, they tend to rotate their populations according to what the public most wants to see, tending toward the new and spectacular. The unpopular or otherwise unsuitable stock ends up going through the back door and into the hands of private sellers, or worse, international body-part traffickers. Conversely, the AZA has been adamant about not accepting animals that have been raised by private parties. Testifying before the House of Representatives, AZA board member Eric Miller explained, “This type of breeding decreases the genetic viability of the species and increases the risk of tainted bloodlines getting into American zoological collections and possibly wild populations.”

And so there exist dual castes of wild-animal ownership, forever separate, but often with similar objectives. As one observer who owns and works with servals and cheetahs put it, “We’d all rather see these animals in the wild.” But as the jungle and savannah disappear, “captivity is necessary to save them.”
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The web serves as a veritable exotic-pet store. Sites like Gotpetsonline.com contain countless ads for sugar gliders and hedgehogs, along with the latest fashionable exotics like binturongs, coatimundis, lemurs, kinkajous (the enviable breed that bit Paris Hilton), Patagonian cavies, fennec foxes, genets, red pandas, and wallabies. Click down far enough and out come coyotes, musk oxen, camels, elephants, zebras and, incredibly, dingoes and seals.

Searching online is also a good way for a reporter to get her hands on elusive, publicity-shy exotic-pet owners. One ad, which read, “I am looking for a tiger of any breed, male or female. It will be very well taken care of and treated with the hospitality and respect that I believe these beautiful animals deserve,” led to “Georgette” in Texas. On the phone, Georgette had an ethereal voice and dreamy demeanor. She dozily sketched out her vision of a country haven for feral cats and other creatures that would live as peacefully as Elsa, the lion in the ’60s movie Born Free. “I just thought it would be cool, you know, to have a cub to lie around with,” she said. She hoped to buy a small farmhouse in her hometown. Her utopian vision included a barn where tigers would roam freely, depending, of course, on their personalities. “There’s a comfort level with animals and [they wouldn’t need cages] as long as they didn’t reach out past the boundary,” she explained.

The Animal Finder’s Guide is the oldest and most highly regarded resource for the private exotic-animal trade. It’s a simple, newsprint catalog sold only through the mail and published eighteen times per year. What it lacks in visual sophistication, it generously supplies in unalloyed, pornographic abundance. On the first page was an ad for a USDA-licensed zoo in Ohio that was going out of business. For $2,800, a lucky buyer could own three tigers, a bear, a coyote, a timber wolf, and two mountain lions. “All are hand raised and pettable,” read the ad, but just in case, a tranquilizer gun was included in the deal.

Another ad offered five free tigers. “I need to make room,” explained Tim, when reached by phone at his home in Indiana. Tim has dedicated three of his eight acres to twelve tigers, two leopards, a cougar, four bobcats, a serval, two ocelots, a binturong, a wallaby, and several hawks and owls. When asked whether three acres wasn’t, perhaps, a little cozy for all those animals, Tim clarified: “What they fucking like and what they fucking get are two different things.”

Quite a bit more, ah, practical than Georgette, Tim has a USDA license, though he’s not sure which type. “I don’t know and I don’t give a shit. I think I have a class B, whatever the fuck that is.” Were the inspections to get the license tough to pass? “It depends. The first inspector was some little faggot who tried real hard to find citations. All he could come up with was something about how I stored my brooms and shovels. He was just trying to show his fucking power.”

Given the regulations, the potential physical danger, and the sheer expense of feeding the animals (local sheriffs tip Tim off to road-killed deer), one has to wonder why he keeps such a large collection. “Because I love animals,” he said. “I think the business is fucked up. If [the government] would regulate it right, they’d make money. Not everybody should be allowed, though. They should attend husbandry courses. There should be registration for every animal. Housing, for example, should be specific: cage size, type of floor … ” Though Tim takes in rescues from “scumbags” who don’t properly care for their animals, he has no plans to stop breeding his own tigers in order to fight overpopulation. Of a particular male tiger, he said, “I’m not gonna knock the nuts off. I love dealing with the babies.”

The Feline Conservation Federation is the premier organization representing wild-cat owners. According to its website, members include hundreds of people all over the world who are “interested in the propagation and preservation of all the wild feline species.” The organization teaches husbandry courses, lobbies legislators, works to preserve natural habitat, and generally advocates for responsible captive breeding. FCF members point out that captive wild animals tend to live longer than those in the wild.

The FCF’s most recent convention was held last July at an aging Holiday Inn in the Cincinnati suburbs. Presumably, the hotel was chosen because members were allowed to bring their animals. The three-day event took place primarily in a hall on the hotel’s main floor, just beyond a glass-enclosed swimming pool in the front lobby. Vendors displayed cat foods, nets, gloves, animal enclosure and insurance-policy brochures, and a variety of toys and tools attached to long poles. Programming included educational presentations, lectures, and even a field trip to the Cincinnati Zoo, where members were afforded a behind-the-scenes look at the small-cat exhibit. The zoo, notable for having housed the very last captive passenger pigeon, is the only facility in America doing research on all five endangered small-cat species: ocelots, fishing cats, Pallas’s cats, sand cats, and black-footed cats. Overall, the convention had the earnest, nerdy air of a gathering of amateur ornithologists or rock collectors.
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At the opening-night cocktail party, a large buffet filled the center of the hall and a wide variety of feline-related auction prizes were on display. The crowd of more than one hundred members featured a good number of women in animal-print outfits and men sporting safari jackets, some with official-looking patches and embroidered names. Sitting at the back of the large room was board member (now FCF president) Lynn Culver, who, despite all the other attractions, had drawn a large gathering of admirers. Culver is an astonishingly prolific speaker, writer, researcher, volunteer, organizer, and wild cat owner. Unlike, say, Georgette or Tim, she is extraordinarily articulate and carries a mind-boggling amount of data in her head. She possesses a Judy Collins sort of natural beauty, and a thick mane of graying hair falls across her face in the easy manner of a woman unconcerned with her looks, making her all the more beautiful.

Dogs and cats are man-made, said Culver, playing with the bobcat kitten in her lap, but looking into a wild-cat’s eyes is akin to “looking into the face of God.” Back home, she and husband Bart have six cougars, thirteen bobcats, two Canadian lynx, three caracals, six servals, and thirteen Geoffrey’s cats. The Culvers started out with six bottle-raised cougars, each of which died of old age. Since then, they’ve mostly stuck to raising and selling smaller breeds. Nor do they have full contact with the adult cougars they adopt, as they did with those they raised by hand. The Culvers’ home videos show Bart and the original six cougars in their expansive rural habitat in the South. Bart rolls up a big snowball and a cat pounces, looking about as menacing as a kitten preying on a vicious ball of yarn. The cats leap and twist in the air as he jerks a piece of rubber hose with a deep-sea fishing rod. The images are transfixing, especially when the cats repeatedly race over to slap their paws on Lynn or her husband’s shoulders and stand, head to head, in long embraces.

Why not rescue America’s millions of homeless domesticated pets? Why not champion the cause of much-maligned breeds like the Rhodesian Ridgeback and Presa Canario? Because, explained Culver, the challenge isn’t to protect an individual creature but rather to save an entire species. As with adopting abandoned Chinese girls, it seems the fight to save a population dwindling on foreign soil is best waged here at home. The Culvers chose not to have children, in part because humans are not in danger of going extinct.

A number of women, in fact, have chosen rare, endangered, or potentially dangerous cats over parenthood. One, who lives in a Mountain Time state, owns two of only twenty Sokokes in the country. Sokokes are the size of regular housecats, but they are purely wild and hail from a small forest in Kenya. Africans do keep Sokokes as pets, but they also hunt them. That makes them prime candidates for importation and strict breeding by private conservationists. “Ms. Sokoke” worked many years for a municipal animal-control department, where she designed and facilitated an education program for repeat offenders. “I think people are really removed from nature,” she said. “Kids are learning this cyber-punk, bleak, end-of-the-world outlook. I read one study that showed that most kids think the future will be lonely and unclean and there will be no animals or plants left.”

She said the rare visitor to her suburban home (wild cats tend to keep the timid at bay) is always surprised that her animals are so manageable. “If an acquaintance meets my animals, they say, ‘Wow, you have really exceptional pets. They have personality and feelings.’ But mine are not exceptional. They’re like my kids. They interact, run around, and do their thing, and my house is animal-proofed like houses that are child-proofed.” While acknowledging the existence of “bad” circuses and roadside zoos, she said the majority of wildcat owners are responsible and passionate, regularly sacrificing for their beliefs. As an FCF board member said, “I don’t buy lunch at work. I eat leftovers because I think, There’s $4.50 that could go for wild cats.”

After much reading and searching and cajoling, I found a woman named “Lisa” who offered to show her Canadian lynx in its home setting. Driving through northern Minnesota toward her house, the twilight pushed into night. Finally, there appeared a long driveway that led to a large, newer two-car garage and a neatly cut expanse of lawn surrounding a tidy vegetable and flower garden. A sign that read, Caution! Regulated Animal on Premises, spurred the kind of thrill a person just doesn’t get pushing through the turnstile at the zoo.

Two thigh-high, mixed-breed dogs bounded out toward the driveway. Lisa was close behind. She apologized that she couldn’t shake hands. She’d taken her lynx to the vet for a check-up the day before and though it had been given Valium for the trip, the cat had managed a clumsy swipe that cut her hand, leaving it too tender to squeeze.

In the living room of her contemporary A-frame house, Lisa pointed toward the vast space above, where a couple of carpeted shelves were built into window ledges near the ceiling. She is a tall, substantial woman in her thirties who wouldn’t normally disappear into a room, except that this one is two stories tall. “It’s a lot of work,” she said of her lynx, sounding like a first-time mother. “He eats everything: wood carvings, shoes, leather … ” The home, which she shares with her husband “Bob,” a health-care practitioner at a local hospital, is comfortable and simply appointed. In fact, there is little evidence that the cat, “Lance,” spends his days inside with Lisa as she telecommutes from her office upstairs. One small concession is the toilet paper. Lance is mad for the stuff. They keep it in a large sealed storage bin next to the toilet. The only real damage the twenty-five-pound cat ever caused was to himself. The incident happened during one of his usual tears through the house. The chase, which thrills but ultimately frustrates the dogs, starts on the ground floor at the bottom of the spiral staircase. Lance zips up the stairs, perches on the short balcony that overlooks the first floor, and then leaps through the air to land on one of the carpeted ledges. From there he creeps along a three- to four-inch sill to the next window, where he rests or rebounds back onto the stairs to start all over again. Unfortunately, on this particular occasion, Lance leapt at the vertical molding along one window, expecting to grip it like a tree, and fell. He landed on the cast iron woodstove below, was paralyzed for a few hours, and didn’t walk normally for a week. He was ten months old at the time.

Outside, in the dark, Lisa led the way toward a small grove of pine trees a couple dozen yards from the house. A shape leapt up and landed on the wooden spool table near the locked door of a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot cage. Lance looked to be about the same size as the dogs, which happily chased each other across the grass. Lance had been registered with the necessary agencies, Lisa noted, though her compliance was reluctant. “I’m not trying to live secretly, but I don’t agree with it.”

With tufted ears alert, Lance circled the pen, his eyes fixed on Lisa and the Styrofoam tray of raw chicken parts in her hand. She nonchalantly entered the pen and set the meat on the table. In one fast, fluid movement, Lance leapt onto the table, snapped up the chicken, whirled around and dropped silently to the ground on all fours, before moving to a far corner to eat. When he’d finished, Lisa let the dogs into the kennel and exited. The three animals wrestled and played and scrambled around the enclosure, over and under tree limbs, the table, and Lance’s doghouse. At one point, the dogs paused and stood with their tongues hanging out, looking stupefied and tired. Lance made his move and in a split second sprang across the cage, landing square on a dog’s back and then leaping away to a safe place behind a branch. Thrilled, the dog whirled around to tag Lance back.

Being in the presence of a wild cat wasn’t like being around any other animal. Not only was there its sheer physical power and stunning and unrefined nature, which could play out in tragic encounters like Cynthia Gamble’s, but there was also the absolutely revolting smell of piss, which was almost visibly radiant. The odor encircled the pen by roughly twenty feet, even in the crisp, northern Minnesota night air. “It’s pretty strong,” laughed Lisa.

The smell literally makes Bob vomit. But that’s not the only reason he steers clear of Lance. Competition often exists between husbands and male pets, but when you’re talking about a lynx, well, that’s a different matter entirely. The standoff between the two began the day Bob and Lisa attempted to subdue Lance for a trip to the vet. Lance growled at Bob and they have never reconciled. That’s why the cat spends each night outside in the pen. If things ever became so contentious that she had to choose, Lisa acknowledged that she’d get rid of the lynx. As if on cue, her husband appeared at the back sliding door after finishing his work shift. Lisa shrugged, “Why would you own a lynx if you couldn’t snuggle?”