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DEATH OF A TIGER BIG CAT'S SHOOTING SPURS DEBATE.

Byline: Eric Leach Staff Writer

MOORPARK - Local government officials facing emotional and conflicting reactions from their constituents over the killing of a tiger in Moorpark are offering a variety of suggestions for how such a problem might be prevented in the future.

While some call for the state Department of Fish and Game to promote the use of tranquilizers to save the lives of such animals, other exotic animal experts say the raising of tigers for money or as pets is a nationwide problem that has to be restricted through tougher laws.

``We're looking at whether we can set up laws to prevent people who are not trained from keeping these animals. There should be laws requiring people to report an animal when it goes missing immediately,'' said Keith Millhouse, a City Council member in Moorpark, where the tiger was shot Wednesday morning.

``I think whoever the (tiger's) owners are, they need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. There should be a better method of tracking these animals. At the very least, if you have something that marks that animal, then you know whose responsibility it is.''

Millhouse attended a meeting Friday with other Moorpark civic leaders called by state Assemblywoman Audra Strickland, R-Thousand Oaks, regarding the tiger's death.

``I'm thankful that no human beings were injured,'' Millhouse said. ``But it's a terrible tragedy this animal's life was lost.

``Clearly there are many flaws in the law,'' he said. ``There are clearly things that can be done.

``We don't even know how many exotic animals there are in California that are not reported - maybe thousands.''

Strickland said she needed answers to many questions, including how long the declawed tiger was loose and where it went, and how the state Department of Fish and Game tracks animals once the owner has been given a permit.

``I don't think any of us is happy with the way it ended, with the killing of this tiger,'' she said.

Fish and Game officials had been searching for the big cat for more than a week after hundreds of large paw prints were found below the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

While some skeptics ridiculed the effort, expressing doubt there was really a big cat on the loose, the experienced trackers said they were confident it was something like a lion or a tiger.

On Wednesday morning, the 350-pound tiger was spotted outside a Moorpark home and was quickly surrounded by officers from Fish and Game, the California Highway Patrol, Ventura County Sheriff's Department and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As the cat ran through the chaparral-covered hill area, one of the federal officers shot it after it was determined tranquilizing it would be too dangerous, officials said. The animal was shot near homes and a neighborhood park, with a junior high school to the west and the Route 23 Freeway to the east.

Mike Wintemute, a Department of Fish and Game spokesman, said his state agency had received hundreds of calls from the public concerned about how the situation was handled.

``No one was happy that the tiger was killed,'' he said.

``In every instance where we can capture an animal alive, we will take that opportunity.''

But he said his department considered the operation a success because no humans were hurt by what was clearly a dangerous animal on the loose.

People upset over the tiger's death gathered Friday at Miller Park in Moorpark for an emotional vigil where many voiced bitter criticism of the Fish and Game operation.

Among those at the vigil were Jim Brockett and his wife, Gina, of Thousand Oaks, who said they own a number of lynxes and bobcats, which they use in their business providing animals for the motion picture industry. They said there are many responsible owners of exotic and wild animals in Southern California who should not be harmed by broad criticism leveled at irresponsible owners.

``There is a major problem with people owning exotic animals who should not own them,'' said Jim Brockett. ``But there's also a problem with people being tarred with the same brush,'' added his wife.

In Acton at her Shambala Preserve where she has kept big cats including lions and tigers for years, actress Tippi Hedren was among those who found the tiger's death very disturbing and urged reforms.

She said in 30 years she has never had a lion or tiger escape from Shambala.

``Security is an important issue, hugely important,'' she said. ``The fencing has to be strong enough,'' she said, noting that hers is set into the ground with concrete.

Hedren, like many others, said she wished the tiger could have been tranquilized Wednesday morning in Moorpark.

But Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks said it would be wrong to tie the hands of law enforcement.

``I think law enforcement officials have to have the discretion to shoot an animal if it poses a danger,'' she said. ``It has to always be considered as an option. It's very regrettable that it had to happen.''

In Simi Valley, Mayor Paul Miller, a former police chief in the city, said laws on the books now should be sufficient to prevent people from allowing a tiger to escape, but some people simply disregard the law.

``Whoever let that animal loose is responsible for its death,'' he said. ``Law enforcement officers can't predict the behavior of a wild animal. Had that animal eaten a child it would be a whole different outcry. You can't pass laws to prevent people from being stupid.''

Simi Valley City Councilwoman Barbra Williamson said she had lived in the area 34 years and couldn't recall anything like the hunt for the escaped tiger, which had left paw prints between Camarillo and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library as early as Feb. 8.

``I can't tell you how many people told me how upset they are that they had to shoot that animal,'' she said. ``We weren't there and didn't have access to see what happened, but it seems to me we could have outsmarted this animal one way or another.

``Obviously it was somebody's pet. I think keeping animals like this in residential or even ranching areas around here is a dangerous idea. If they get out they are doomed. Ninety-nine percent of the time they are going to get killed by humans, because we are scared of them. These big cats belong in the wild or in a facility where they are cared for 24 hours a day.''

Laurea Bar David, owner of the Secret Garden Restaurant in Moorpark, said her customers have all been talking about the tiger.

``Everybody's talking about it. Everyone has their own opinion, but all opinions are very passionate,'' she said.

``The tiger should have been caught within 48 hours,'' she said. ``It was a (350)-pound animal, not a fox. ... It's a very, very tragic story.''

Animal rights groups say the number of privately owned tigers is growing and members say they hope the shooting will pressure legislators nationwide to enact stricter exotic pet regulations.

``I know the Department of Fish and Game is getting a lot of flak for the outcome of this situation, but I think people need to get to the cause of the situation,'' said Lisa Wathne, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Her group has offered a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the tiger's escape or abandonment.

``The killing of the tiger Wednesday is a graphic and tragic example of why these animals don't belong in captivity,'' Wathne said. ``PETA would like the California state Legislature to enact an outright ban on the private possession of wild animals.''

She said experts estimate that there are some 15,000 tigers in private hands nationwide - often kept in cruel, dangerous conditions. Since 1990, there have been at least 178 dangerous incidents involving big cats in 34 states.

Some tigers are killed illegally, and their skin, bones, flesh and organs are sold on the black market, she said. ``It really is a nationwide tragedy.''

California has one of the strictest exotic pet laws in the nation and has banned unpermitted ownership of large cats as pets since 1990, but enforcement remains a problem, said Pat Derby of the nonprofit Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary.

Animal groups say more states need to pass more laws to restrict private ownership of these animals and discourage ``backyard'' breeding.

Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, a sanctuary for more than 150 big cats in Tampa, Fla., said federal legislation is needed to prevent the kind of thing that happened in Moorpark.

``We're looking for federal guidelines so we will have the same standards across the country. We don't feel any private person should be possessing dangerous wild animals. There's no reason for people to be breeding them. Some people claim they are raising them for educational purposes or conservation, but really they are just trying to make money off of the cubs.

``Most states are coming up with laws that say you can't have big cats as pets unless you have a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but these permits are way too easy to obtain.

``I think people should be absolutely outraged the tiger was killed Wednesday, not because of the authorities who killed it, but because the permits were issued in the first place to let people have these dangerous animals all.

``It's the breeding that's the problem. There's no reason for breeding a big cat for life in a cage.''

She said more restriction laws have had an impact.

``In 2003 I had to turn away 300 big cats. In 2004 it was 100, because of a new federal law that prohibits selling big cats as pets across state line.''

She recommended that states maintain a census of such wild animals.

``Every animal should be microchipped and registered and accounted for. If they were microchipped they would know who the owner was,'' she said.

Michelle Csitos, an actress and stuntwoman from Woodland Hills, said people have been talking about the tiger everywhere she goes, including the supermarket.

``Everybody was talking about it even before they shot it,'' she said. ``I'm confused and a lot of other people are confused. That tiger was more than magnificent. It's like shooting down an eagle.''

Eric Leach, (805) 583-7602

eric.leach(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

4 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Hundreds attended a candlelight vigil in Moopark to show concern over the death of a tiger that was loose in the area. Below, the tiger's body is loaded into a truck Wednesday. Some have questioned whether it was really necessary to kill the big cat.

(2 -- color) Big paw prints were a sure sign that something unusual was on the loose.

(3 -- color) Sheriff's Department deputies watch as the dead tiger is lifted out of the brush. A $2,500 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whomever abandoned the animal.

(4 -- color) Big paw prints were a sure sign that something unusual was on the loose.

Tina Burch/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 27, 2005
Words:1865
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