By EMILY FOXHALL Houston Chronicle
HOUSTON (AP) — The anonymous tipster called the city’s non-emergency line on a rainy February day last year.
“Somebody I know … they have a pet tiger in their house,” the caller said.
The dispatcher cleared her throat.
“How do you even get a pet tiger?” she asked.
The info the caller gave led officers to the garage of a small east Houston home, where, inside a 4-by-8 foot wire cage secured with a screwdriver, they found a tiger that weighed more than 300 pounds.
He looked poorly cared for, confined in the cage filled with layers of waste, according to county documents. And he was in a residential pocket of Manchester, within city limits, where it is illegal to own tigers.
The story was quickly becoming Houston’s own much talked-about tiger tale — with the same sense of intrigue now drawing many to “Tiger King,” the Netflix series about ex-Oklahoma zookeeper Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage — better known as “Joe Exotic” — who is serving 22 years in federal prison in a murder-for-hire plot and wildlife law violations.
Tigers, as it happens, are legal to keep in parts of Texas. They had to find this one a new home quickly, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Officials loaded the cage onto a horse trailer. They took the tiger to the city animal shelter on the north side, as staff puzzled through the situation.
How old was he? Did he eat meat? What kind?
Most importantly: Where could he go?
Lara Cottingham, who oversees the shelter’s media, hurried there to help. The city decided to fight for custody of the tiger, arguing that he was cruelly treated, rather than return him to his owner.
Texas is the only state that leaves it to local jurisdictions to outlaw owning dangerous wild animals, says Katie Jarl, the Humane Society’s southwest region director.
The patchwork laws are dangerous — and people keeping them as pets sometimes could not care for them properly, Jarl argues. But proposed statewide bans failed in 2013, 2015 and 2017.
A week before the tiger was found, state Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican, filed a fourth attempt at a ban.
Word of the Houston tiger, meanwhile, reached Noelle Almrud, director of the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in a rural area southeast of Dallas.
Almrud, 47, is regularly asked to take in animals seized by law enforcement because of poor treatment. The ranch is among the largest animal sanctuaries in the nation — but she often lacks space.
This time, she happened to have a tiger spot open.
A justice of the peace gave the city temporary authority to decide the tiger’s care. Almrud offered to take him.
She sent Christi Gilbreth, 40, who leads the wildlife team, 200 miles from the ranch to the city shelter to pick up the tiger the day after he was found.
When Gilbreth returned to the ranch, she watched the tiger hesitate before touching the grass.
Their lead vet estimated he was a year-and-a-half old, and said he looked like he had been fed an incomplete diet and confined for a long time.
It would be up to a court to determine whether he would stay there permanently, or be returned to his owner, who argued she had properly cared for him.
When the water and rural affairs committee heard testimony on a dangerous animal bill April 1, state Sen. Carol Alvarado, a co-author, said the tiger case highlighted the need for change.
Texas fell behind other states in having laws to protect animals, she said in an interview. The tiger was found a few blocks from where her mother lives.
And it wasn’t the first such story. A tiger was corralled in Galveston church during Hurricane Ike. Another was found in 2016 roaming a neighborhood in Conroe. A third tore off the arm of a four-year-old in Channelview in 2000.
“I felt so bad for that tiger,” 11-year-old Francesca Joseph testified of the Houston case, “because I know that is not the kind of life a tiger is supposed to have.”
The senate passed the ban. The house never voted on it.
The city of Houston pursued permanent custody of the tiger, alleging he was mistreated.
His owner, 25-year-old Brittany Garza, hired an attorney and fought back.
On April 5, Justice of the Peace Angela Rodriguez ruled the tiger was treated cruelly. She awarded the city permanent custody and ordered Garza to pay $11,609.53 for expenses.
A month later, on May 15, while Garza spoke with Channel 13, police arrested her on suspicion of criminal animal cruelty.
She faces up to a $4,000 fine and a year in jail. That case is ongoing.
Her mother said they couldn’t discuss what happened until the case was over.
Garza told the Channel 13 reporter she got the tiger, named Rajah, as a cub and planned to move him to College Station.
She had left him temporarily at her friend’s home, she said.
It is unclear where the tiger lived before that. That house where he was found was purchased Sept. 4, 2018 at auction — about five months before authorities discovered him.
On the criminal case, Garza listed her address in north Houston, barely inside the city limits. (Tigers are allowed in Harris and Montgomery counties.)
She filed also as owner of a nearby pet grooming business, “Tails R Us.” Some of her social media posts advertised animal sales, from bulldogs to piglets to a Marmoset monkey.
One in 2018 shows what appears to be her pet Capuchin monkey, Cami. (Monkeys under 25 pounds are allowed in the city.)
The family no longer lives in that home and the business storefront is gone.
On Feb. 14 — a year and two days after he arrived — Cottingham, the city employee, went to visit the tiger, renamed Loki, at Black Beauty Ranch.
Cottingham was curious about how he was doing. The story, in some ways, had become linked to her: Starbucks employees call her “Tiger Lady,” and City Hall security guards ask about the animal.
Almrud drove Cottingham to Loki’s enclosure, passing Don Juan the ostrich, whose case featured on T.V., and Bubba the camel, whose plight became an internet sensation.
“Loki, where are you?” Almrud called. The playful tiger, who is now 308 pounds, came bounding forward.
“Hi, sweet boy,” she said, and Loki chuffed — a tiger sound that is a series of puffs signifying a friendly hello.
He seemed more confident, Gilbreth said. He liked his pool. The wind didn’t scare him anymore.
Almrud found it ludicrous anyone would own a tiger — an animal she thinks deserves to live in the wild. She did not let Garza visit him privately there, where he will live out his life behind 16-foot high fences.
The ranch spends about $23,000 a year caring for him.
“He was our celebrity,” Cottingham said.
“He’s able to just be a tiger now,” said Gilbreth.