There are only 3,000 tigers left in the wild. There are at least 7,000 in the United States. A few hundred of America's tigers are in established zoos, but the rest live in suburban homes and urban apartments. They decorate Las Vegas casinos, prowl the estates of celebrities—glimpsed on MTV's "Cribs"—and perform in circuses, magic shows and animal parks. Some are even employed as guards or punishers. Police in Atlanta recently found a tiger (along with a lion and a bear) when they arrested a local drug dealer. Another was found patrolling a crystal meth lab in San Antonio.
They make bad pets. Americans die or are severely injured in tiger attacks almost every year. The biggest subspecies, the Siberian, can be almost four feet tall at the shoulders, nine feet long, weigh more than 650 pounds, and live longer than 20 years. In the wild they kill prey, including bears and leopards, by stalking through dense jungles. They target the head and neck, with jaws designed to macerate living bone. But, says Beth Preiss, who tracks the cats and other animals for the Humane Society of the United States, they are appealing precisely because they are so dangerous. "We want," she says, "what we can't have."
The American tiger has had some stellar endorsements too. Martin Van Buren, the eighth president (1837 to 1841), was given two cubs by the Sultan of Oman. In December 1960, the first white tiger in the U.S.—a tigress with ice-blue eyes named Mohini of Rewa—was presented to President Eisenhower on the White House lawn, a gift of Metropolitan Broadcasting Corporation.
The market for pet tigers swelled between the 1980s and early 2000s, say those who work with big cats. Many cite the influence of the movie "Scarface," in which Al Pacino's drug baron Tony Montana keeps tigers, and of Michael Jackson who posed with a 6-week-old cub on the cover of his "Thriller" album. Jackson also kept two of the animals, Thriller and Sabu, on his Neverland ranch (they were later adopted by the actress Tippi Hedren). In the early 1990s, Mike Tyson claimed he sparred with his two white female Bengal tigers, Kenya and Storm, and a golden male named Boris, at his Texas home. A few years later Paris Hilton celebrated a $5,000 win in Las Vegas by buying her own tiger, which roamed her family's land in Nevada. Last year the rapper Akon unveiled his own white tiger, Simba, kept in a small glass cage, on the MTV show "Cribs."
And Antoine Yates kept a tiger in Apartment 5E of the Drew Hamilton Houses in uptown Manhattan. In early 2000 Yates climbed into his new Ford Explorer to begin the long drive to Bearcat Hollow animal park in Racine, Minn. Yates was excited. He was about to collect an 8-week old tiger cub named Ming. Wiry, in his early 30s, with a drawling voice, shaved head and a diamond stud in one ear, Yates had saved tens of thousands of dollars to buy and keep the cub. He would not say how he came by the money, "because that's a different part of my life. I'm a different person now." He was more eager to talk about the love for exotic animals that he had harbored since childhood. It began at 11, he says, with several capuchin and squirrel monkeys and two chimpanzees. Yates kept them, under the indulgent eye of his mother, Martha, in an apartment on Troy Avenue in Brooklyn. When a monkey escaped and caused havoc in the rental office, the family reluctantly shed their menagerie and moved.
By 2000, through contacts with exotic-animal dealers and breeders, Yates had accumulated a lion cub, two pythons and an alligator named Al. But he craved a tiger. "They are beautiful," he says, recalling his longing. "They are dangerous. They are mystical." He had bought land, he says, to start a sanctuary upstate. But until it was ready he had no qualms about keeping Ming in the projects. "It is not my fault I was born and raised in that environment," he says, before pausing. "I suppose things might have worked out better in the end if God hadn't put a person with a beautiful heart for animals in the middle of Harlem."
Ming, then a mewing, 20-pound ball of fur, rode back quietly in the Explorer and moved in with little fuss. His only bad habit was chewing shoes. Every night Yates lay in bed and watched movies on TV. Ming would slink in languidly next to him, and man and tiger would fall asleep together. "But real fast, before you know, it he's 200 pounds," says Yates, who fed Ming 15 to 20 pounds of meat, offal, bones and supplements daily, bought by the straining bagful from a local grocery store. The big cat soon grew to about 400 pounds—nine feet if he stood on his hind legs, which he could barely do in the apartment. Eventually, Yates had to load his now-grown lion and his Burmese and reticulated pythons into the Ford, and drive them thousands of miles to safe homes in Pennsylvania and Texas. "I just had to pray I didn't get stopped," he recalls.
By October 1, 2003, only Ming and Al the alligator remained, along with a stray black cat Yates had found on his doorstep. That morning, Ming watched the smaller cat carefully as it stretched in the apartment's cramped hallway. The tiger tensed and shifted, stalking. Then he leaped. Yates saw the attack out of the corner of his eye and moved to stop it, pulling at Ming's fur. The animal mauled his knee and right arm, leaving large gashes. The smaller cat was unscathed. Yates went to hospital, where he claimed he'd been attacked by a pit bull.
Days later, police were tipped off that a very large animal might have bitten someone in Harlem. Their investigations led them to Yates. A downstairs neighbor told them Yates was keeping a tiger, and even complained that urine had seeped through her ceiling. Cutting into Yates' door, they "saw the large tiger pass by the open hole," according to comments made at the time by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Officers rappelled down the building and shot Ming with a tranquilizer dart—the tiger broke a window charging at the dangling marksmen.
Ming and Al were sent to sanctuaries. Yates spent five months in jail for reckless endangerment. "Nothing any tiger could do compares to what the system done to me," he says. The owner of Bearcat Hollow, where Yates bought his big cats, pleaded guilty in 2005 to seven federal counts connected with illegal trading in wild animals.
Because moving tigers across state lines is now illegal much of the trade is underground, or at least conducted quietly. So it is difficult to obtain a precise figure for the number of tiger breeders in the U.S. Several alleged breeders contacted by NEWSWEEK refused to be interviewed. Those who rescue unwanted or mistreated tigers suggest the number must be in the hundreds. Until recently, the absence of strict federal and state laws meant "tigers were selling for thousands," says Emily McCormack, a zoologist at Turpentine Creek, a refuge in Arkansas which rescues big cats, "One breeder told me that if his tigers had two broods of three or four cubs a year, he was already earning more than the average American."
Among the most highly prized are perfect white tigers which reportedly sell for more than $20,000. White tigers are a genetic mutation of the Bengal subspecies that are almost non-existent in the wild. Those found in America are the results of extensive inbreeding, a laborious process. For every fluffy white cub, says a former breeder who did not want to be named discussing such a sensitive topic, several are born the wrong color, or deformed. Mating fathers with daughters and brothers with sisters can result in problems like shrunken hearts, shortened tendons, club feet, kidney ailments, malformed backbones and twisted necks. Turpentine Creek has rescued several malformed tigers.
Yates, who now lives in Las Vegas, has re-stocked his menagerie. He now has two white tigers, one tabby and one orange among 22 big cats. After he was released from jail his story came to the attention of Michael Jackson, Jackson's brother Jermaine, and former Kool and the Gang keyboardist Amir Bayyan who helped him financially. Yates' Facebook profile name is "Antoine Tigermann Yates." He sometimes wears tiger-eye contact lenses and says he is not afraid of being attacked again—he still plays with his tigers.
McCormack is more cautious, saying she would never enter a tiger cage, let alone cavort with one of the cats. "Their play is enough to kill you," she says. "It's instinct with them, even if they're hand-reared. If you turn your back they immediately go into stalking mode—they may not intend to eat you, but they can kill you by accident. Keeping a tiger in your house is like giving a child a loaded gun. At some point, unless you're very lucky, it will go off and someone will die or be severely injured."
Around lunchtime on August 4, 2008, 16-year-old Dakoda Wood, an employee at a roadside zoo called Predator World in Branson West, Mo., entered a tiger cage to take a picture for some tourists. He tripped, according to reports at the time, and three tigers set upon him. He was seized by the throat and dragged into a nearby pool of water. Colleagues pulled Wood from the cage, and he was airlifted to an area hospital.
"I hit a bump in the rode [sic] of life," Wood writes on his MySpace page, "u should know I am now paralized [sic] but, there is hope for full recovery." His version of events differs from the news reports. "I tripped while in with 3 tigers and hit my head knocked myself out fell with my head under water," he writes, "and one of the tigers saved my life by grabbing me by my neck and pulled me out of the water, but she broke my neck. I was very active and adventurous person, the main things I liked to do is scuba and ride my dirt bike."
The day before Wood was attacked, a tiger at nearby Wesa-A-Geh-Ya animal farm in Warrenton, Mo., leaped a 10-foot gate and mauled a 26-year-old volunteer who was trying to clean a cage. The farm's owners took the man to hospital for leg surgery. They claimed he had been bitten by a pit bull.
The two attacks, though unusually close together, were not rarities. The charity Big Cat Rescue estimates that since 1990 there have been 599 incidents of attacks by captive big cats in the U.S. Many involved tigers. The most high-profile incident came in 2003, when Roy Horn, one-half of the illusionist duo Siegfried & Roy, was mauled by a 7-year-old white tiger during a Las Vegas performance. The attack left him partially paralyzed, but Siegfried & Roy still keep dozens of tigers.
Other incidents do not make international headlines. At Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska last year a veterinarian, Dr. Doug Armstrong, was treating a Malaysian tiger he thought was tranquilized. When he brushed its whiskers the cat reared up and bit him three times before he could react, leaving him in critical condition. In Ingram, Texas, a 300-pound tiger escaped its cage and sprawled in the yard of 79-year-old Mildred Crenshaw. "That's a terrible feeling to wake up with police surrounding your house, with their lights on, and to look out your window and see a tiger standing there," she told the San Antonio Express-News.
But Americans continue to buy tigers. The law on exotic animals is mostly administered state-by-state, in a messy and unpredictable patchwork. Though many states have tightened their rules, tiger cubs can still be purchased at exotic-animal auctions and through breeders. Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Oklahoma still have few regulations on exotic pets, according to the Humane Society. And the market has shifted so tigers can cost considerably less than people pay for some fancy rabbits. McCormack says she has seen prices as low as $175.
Scrutiny of conditions tigers are kept in is also lax, or poorly enforced. McCormack says she has rescued tigers from boxes they could barely stand up in and basements filled with feces and rotting meat. Tigers, she says, attract "the same type of people that go for the breeds of dog that are the most aggressive. Maybe some people think they will finally tame the tiger. But they won't."
Antoine Yates, whose tigers live in much better circumstances, will not discuss the morality behind keeping his deadly pets. "I can't address that," he says. "I just love them. That's all."