Raid Uncovers Extent of Traffic in Big Cats

Heidi Prescott hprescott at
Mon Jun 2 17:35:44 EDT 2003,1,418489.story?coll=la%2Dheadlines%2Dcalifornia

Raid Uncovers Extent of Traffic in Big Cats

Demand for tigers as pets and for body parts, trophy hunts and
other reasons creates conditions ripe for abuse, experts say.

By Deborah Sullivan Brennan
Special to The Times

June 1, 2003

When wildlife authorities entered the grounds of Jon Weinhart's home in
April and found scores of dead and malnourished tigers, they opened a
window into what some experts describe as an underground industry in
exotic pets.

Weinhart, the owner of a wildlife facility called Tiger Rescue, and his
partner, Marla Smith, were charged with illegally breeding tigers and
keeping a menagerie of big cats in unhealthy conditions. They were also
of child endangerment for allegedly exposing their 8-year-old son to
unsafe conditions.

The April raid at Weinhart's home in Glen Avon, Riverside County,
yielded 90 tiger carcasses, including 58 frozen cubs. A raid at his
Colton facility in San Bernardino in November led to the seizure of 10
tiger cubs.

Weinhart and Smith have denied any wrongdoing, defending the facility as
dedicated to tiger conservation. "There is no indication of any kind of
illegal or black market activity at Tiger Rescue," said Anthony Kimbirk,

Weinhart's court-appointed attorney. "If you rescue a pregnant tiger,
you are going to have cubs at some point."

Experts say the demand for tigers as pets and performers has fueled a
cottage industry of breeders who produce litters of the big cats for
sale to private owners or for use in movies, television or commercials.
Uncontrolled, the breeding creates conditions ripe for the eventual
abuse of the endangered cats, they say. "Once there are tigers in
private hands, the production is going to go skyrocketing," said Richard
Farinato, director of the Captive Wildlife Protection Program of the
Humane Society of the United States. "The result is
too many cats, too little space, and tigers in places where there is no
way they can care for them well."

The unregulated breeding also raises the risk of genetic defects and
generates animals that may eventually be slaughtered for parts or shot
for sport in "canned hunts" on game ranches.

Although Weinhart was licensed to keep tigers, prosecutors said he was
not permitted to breed them.  Ron Tilson, director of conservation at
the Minnesota Zoo and coordinator of a nationally adopted Tiger Species
Survival Plan, said he was unfamiliar with Weinhart's credentials.

The Tiger Species Survival Plan, which covers 89 zoos in the American
Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, carefully controls captive breeding of
tigers, whose bloodlines are documented back to their wild ancestors,
Tilson said.
Scientists in the program arrange for mates to preserve natural genetic
diversity and prevent inbreeding.

"The tigers that you find in the private sector will never, ever be
introduced into the wild, and I doubt that they have any value for
either conservation or research," he said.

Backyard breeders could mix closely related tigers, causing birth
defects that can include skeletal and metabolic problems, crossed eyes
and elevated infant mortality, experts say.

Conversely, breeders may mingle cats of separate subspecies. One litter
of cubs seized from Tiger Rescue is believed to be a mix of Siberian
tigers, the largest subspecies, and Sumatran, the most aggressive.

Although tigers of all ancestries are protected under the Endangered
Species Act, mixed-breed, or "generic" tigers, are subject to less
stringent regulations.

Purebred tigers cannot legally be sold through interstate commerce, but
mixed breeds may be sold under some circumstances, said Tim Santel, a
special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And while owners
of purebred tigers must obtain federal permits, owners of generic tigers
aren't required to do so.

Loopholes create a "second-class citizen of endangered species,"
vulnerable to black market sale and gruesome abuse, said Craig Hoover,
deputy director of TRAFFIC, which monitors illegal trade in exotic
animals for the World Wildlife Fund. In a recent survey of Chinese
marketplaces throughout the U.S. and Canada, TRAFFIC consistently found
traditional remedies labeled to contain tiger parts, valued for their
supposed medicinal or aphrodisiac
properties, he said.

Santel headed a six-year case dubbed Operation Snowplow, which found an
underground ring of dealers in the Chicago area who purchased tigers,
slaughtered them with semiautomatic handguns, then sold their bodies for

pelts, meat and medicinal ingredients.

Though a live tiger may be purchased for less than the price of a
purebred puppy, experts say, its dismembered parts can sell for a total
of more than $10,000, Santel said. "What the case illustrated was that
the cats, once they were killed and parted out, were worth a lot more
dead than alive," he said.

Operation Snowplow led to convictions against all 17 defendants, Santel
said. However, the entire ring involved countless more dealers, brokers
and customers around the country, and included many who held valid
to keep or trade big cats, he said, suggesting that the black market
tiger trade is widespread and well-entrenched.

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