News 4 Investigates: Exotic Animal Trade -

News 4 Investigates: Exotic Animal Trade

Dick Stephens (shown at right) is an elderly farmer who gets around on crutches. He also owns two full-grown tigers who could easily kill him.

Mr. Stephens will kiss his tigers on the mouth and put his arms in their cage so he can play with them. He insists his tigers aren't dangerous, but when I got too close to the cage, one of the tigers lunged at me, jamming one of her legs through the large openings in the cage. She grabbed me and pulled me toward the bars.

She didn't hurt me, but it definately freaked me out.

Mr. Stephens keeps the tigers in a cage behind his barn. He doesn't breed the big cats or exhibit them, which means the he's not required to get a USDA license. He calls them his "pets." So, the federal government doesn't have the right to enter his property and check on the tigers.

So, what is he required to do? Under Missouri law, Mr. Stephens is supposed to tell the local Sheriff that he has the tigers on his property.

That's it. And, yes, he did that.

Mr. Stephens, who lives about 50 miles north of Springfield, Missouri, bought his tigers from a back yard breeder. How easy is it to buy a lion or tiger?

I could do it right now.

I could buy one over the computer or I could travel to a backyard breeder or auction and hand somebody a handful of cash, perhaps as little as $400, and walk away with a tiger or lion cub.

Seriously, it's that easy.

Many animal welfare advocates, including Eric Miller, the Senior Vice-President of Zoological Operations for the St. Louis Zoo, support stronger legislation to protect exotic animals and people who could be hurt by them.

In June 2003, Mr. Miller testified before a Congressional subcommittee on the issue. Here's a link to his testimony.

There are many reasons to be concerned about dangerous animals that are owned by people who may not appreciate the risk.

This year, tigers attacked and seriously injured two workers at different animal parks in Missouri.

Three years ago, 17-year old Haley Hildebrand (shown at right) was posing with a tiger at an animal sanctuary in Kansas when it pawed her foot. She got scared, squeeled and started to run away. That's when the tiger attacked and killed her, "like a tiger attacks it's prey," according to Haley's mom Ronda Good.

Haley's parents Ronda and Mike (shown at left) have testified repeatedly in recent years to strengthen exotic animal laws. Their efforts have prompted some reform in Kansas and Iowa, but were not enough to convince Missouri lawmakers to change the law.

The Goods are also trying to get federal legislation passed. Kansas Congresswoman Nancy Boyda (D) is the sponsor of Haley's Act. It's been introduced, but there hasn't been any other action on it. Eleven months ago, the USDA gave it a "favorable executive comment."

I spoke with the Goods in their Kansas home recently. It's clear that Mr. and Mrs. Good felt like they were on a mission, helping educate the public while they pushed legislators to protect the public through laws that hold the owners of exotic animals more accountable.

Unfortunately, the Goods are questioning the impact of their efforts, even describing the overall outcome as "dissapointing."

It's easy to see why they could feel that way, but despite their frustrations, there's no question the Goods have made a difference.

A big reason why there are still so many potential problems is that the danger keeps moving. For example; Dick Stephens took his two tigers and left Kansas partly to escape the tougher law that resulted from Haley's death. He moved to Missouri, which has a much weaker law.

In fact, according to the animal welfare group Born Free, Missouri has one of the weakest laws in the country.

Julie Leicht, the Executive Director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation, describes the Missouri law as requiring the exotic animal owner "to call the local Sheriff and say 'Hey, by the way, I've got a tiger in my backyard."

Although, the exotic animal owners are required to register their animals, the penalties are minimal and it's a misdemeanor. Some pet owners in Missouri have violated the law, kept their animals in horrible conditions and not gone to jail. Obviously, communities can set their standards. For example, residents of the city of St. Louis are not allowed to keep big cats on their property.

Leicht says dangerous exotic animals like tigers, lions and bears should be microchipped and registered so the state can easily track them, the owners should have to pay registration fees, should not be allowed to let anyone touch the animals and should be required to get insurance.

Leicht is hopeful that Missouri lawmakers will pass a stronger exotic animal legislation following the attacks on the two Missouri workers.

A tougher law with mandatory fees and insurance would probably prompt Dick Stephens to finally give up his tigers.

And that day can't come soon enough for some of his neighbors who believe the backyard tigers are a timebomb waiting to explode.

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