The tigers next door
Southern Nevada is home to lions, tigers, monkeys and wolves. Do our laws keep them—and the public—safe?
Thu, Dec 6, 2012 (midnight)
Photo: Leila Navidi
In a back corner of Exotic Pets, the tanks are filled with the stuff of nightmares: hairy spiders the size of an adult’s palm, with names like Mexican Fireleg and Goliath Birdeater. The Horned Baboon tarantula’s tank is almost completely covered in fine threads of compulsively woven silk. A sign above the shelves reads: “The tarantula is your friend. Fun! Popular! Exotic!”
Ken Foose is comfortable among these creatures. He’s middle-aged and slightly disheveled with a thick, raspy voice, and he seems simultaneously harried and in total control of the shop, which he’s owned for 25 years, the past six at its current location on North Decatur. Along with the spiders, there are turtles, hedgehogs, ferrets, dozens of snakes and customers staring into the glass to marvel at whatever’s behind it. The Beaded Lizards have beautiful, pixilated skin like tiny mosaics. The New Guinea Snake-Neck turtle sports a disproportionately long neck and sweet, buggy eyes. In the back of the store, a pair of hopelessly cute, raccoon-like animals called kinkajous sleep, spooning, in a plastic bin. Price tag: $3,999.95.
Just across from the kinkajous is the Crocodile Monitor, a stunning and ominous lizard with giant, hooked claws and black skin printed with bright yellow markings that look vaguely like computer code. “Sucks he’s so mean,” an employee says, lingering in front of the tank. When I turn back toward the lizard, the modern-day dinosaur is staring me down.
Later, I ask Foose which of the 5,000 or so animals in his store are most dangerous. “The Deathstalker Scorpion. It’s named that for a reason. You don’t hold a Goliath Birdeater. It has 2-inch fangs. It won’t kill you, but it’ll make you wish you were dead.”
But the most dangerous animal here? That honor goes to the Crocodile Monitor. “He’s not dangerous to me,” says the trained zoologist and herpetologist (reptile and amphibian expert), but “he will rip you a new one. We’re talking a mouth full of broken glass.”
The lizards can grow to be 13 feet and 200 pounds, but as with the Deathstalker Scorpion and Goliath Birdeater, under Nevada state law there are literally no restrictions on their sale and ownership. If the reptile hits 6 feet, it requires an exotic animal permit in Clark County, but even then, owners who keep the creature inside and out of sight can probably get by without one. The only things truly standing between the kid next door and that Croc Monitor are the $1,400 it takes to buy one—and Foose himself. “I would not sell that to you. You can’t have it,” he says. “We are very picky about what we sell and who we sell it to.”
I won’t be taking home this elegant, violent creature, but a larger issue hangs in the air, over this store and the homes of local exotic animal owners across Las Vegas: Should people be allowed to own exotic animals at all?
On July 12, two chimpanzees escaped from their home near Jones Boulevard and Ann Road. The chimps, named Buddy and CJ, were living at a property with an exotic animal permit, but they’d somehow slipped out of their enclosure. They were loose on the street, agitated and banging on cars. When police arrived on the scene, they gave the owners a chance to recover the animals, but after about half an hour, Buddy, the male, began crossing the road and heading toward onlookers. A nearby officer made a judgment call. He fired on the animal, killing him in front of the gathering crowd.
CJ, the female, was eventually tranquilized and recovered, but just one month later, she escaped again. Days after her second breakout, she was transported to a chimp sanctuary in Oregon.
In the local exotic animal community, the saga is simply referred to as “the chimp incident,” and its mention often draws an eye roll. In the wake of the escapes, Clark County commissioners immediately took control of exotic animal permitting from the Planning Commission, vowing to tighten regulations by adding new standards for enclosures, requiring more frequent inspections and adding fines for violations, among other things. The new ordinance will likely come up for a vote in January.
“We were all surprised that these things were zoned, and we didn’t know about it,” Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani says of the chimp escape.
In late November, the commissioners voted to deny a permit for James “Mike” Casey, who wanted to house four chimps at a property that had previously been used for large cats, after an animal control visit found potential problems.
Giunchigliani adds that she considers herself an animal person, but in light of the incident she’s reevaluated the role of exotic animals. “I don’t think keeping exotics is right. They’re wild animals.”
At the state level, senators Michael Roberson and Mark Manendo have been working with the Humane Society of the United States on a bill they plan to introduce during the 2013 legislative session. It would ban the private possession of exotic animals. (If it passes, the Clark County ordinance would become moot.)
Holly Haley, Nevada director for the Humane Society, says there’s no safe way for private individuals to keep exotic animals. “As long as dangerous wild animals are kept in private hands, public safety will be at risk and captive wild animals will suffer. … Nevada is one of only six states that have virtually no law pertaining to the private possession of dangerous wild animals.”
What we do have is a patchwork of federal, state and local laws that seem more confusing than comprehensive. Some say they don’t serve the best interests of the captive animals or the general public. The federal Animal Welfare Act is concerned with the care of exhibition animals, and Nevada state laws focus primarily on protecting native species. Clark County’s statutes have treated exotic animal ownership as a land use issue, with animal control officers inspecting each property and making a recommendation.
Still, it’s not always clear which creatures require special permits under state or local law.
“The list of prohibited animals is not very long, and the list of allowed animals is also not very long,” says Exotic Pets’ Foose. In the middle, he adds, is a “black hole” of species that aren’t mentioned anywhere. Even for those that do get a nod, like snakes longer than 6 feet, if the owner doesn’t take the initiative to apply for a permit, the county may never know the animal even exists.
“Some of these reptiles probably are in the Valley and kept out of sight,” says Don Coburn, head of animal control and code enforcement for Clark County. “I personally have taken two Caiman alligators out of an apartment here.”
By Foose’s estimate, he and his wife have about 1,000 animals at home. “You would never see them unless we wanted you to. Most reptile people are introverts. They have their nice quiet lizard or nice quiet snake. Nobody needs to know.”
Insects and arachnids—think venomous scorpions and those spiders at Foose’s shop—aren’t addressed by Nevada law, or statutes virtually anywhere else in the country, says David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University’s College of Law, who has specialized in animal law for more than 30 years.
“The approach of all states so far is to very specifically list which species are considered exotic.” When it comes to insects, Favre says he doesn’t see them listed. “They haven’t eaten enough people yet.”
Also missing from state and local regulations: any sort of examination that would assess the knowledge of animal owners and help determine whether people applying for permits have the education to keep their animals—and the people around them—safe.
That, Favre says, is the nub of the problem. “Even when we have a regulatory system in place, it tends to be mostly concerned with the size of the cage. And the size of the cage is important—and the size of the bars are important—but it really doesn’t get to the heart of what is the quality of life for the animal and what are the actual risks involved both to the owner and the public at large.”
Of course, the issue of animal ownership has come up in Nevada before Buddy and CJ made headlines. In 2001, a Bengal tiger named Jagger killed his trainer while they were preparing for a commercial photo shoot. Two years later, Strip performer Roy Horn was severely injured when a 7-year-old white tiger bit him during a Siegfried & Roy show at the Mirage. In 2009, a pet python in a local home wrapped itself around the family’s 3-year-old son. (The mother stabbed the snake until it released the child largely unharmed.) And this past April, a 1-year-old Henderson boy was killed when the family dog, Onion, seized the child suddenly and shook him, snapping his neck.
But the incident that shook people on both sides of the exotic animal debate took place across the country, in Zanesville, Ohio, last October. Terry Thompson, a local resident who owned 56 lions, tigers, monkeys and bears, opened nearly all of their cages, then shot himself to death. Local police eventually killed close to 50 of the animals in a tense shootout that ended with dozens of exotic corpses piled in the mud.
Today, “Ohio” serves as a stand-in for the unspeakable possibilities of exotic animal ownership gone terribly wrong.
“What level of risk should trigger restrictions?” Favre asks. “The default position is, the level of risk must be acceptable if nothing has gone wrong. … To get political momentum to actually change law usually requires a disaster—some big event, some child gets eaten or they have a big shootout in the middle of the street—something to grab headlines and grapple around and say, ‘You know what? This is wrong. And we have to do something about it.’”
Zuzana Kukol and her boyfriend, Scott Shoemaker, hand me a waiver as I enter their dusty 10-acre Pahrump compound. Located at the end of a dirt road and surrounded by an 8-foot chain-link fence that’s electrified at top and bottom and capped by a foot of barbed wire, the property feels a bit like a clandestine military outpost. An oddly normal home is front and center; a black Hummer with the plates TIGRLVR sits in the driveway. Beyond the house, a maze of metal cages stretches forth, and past the outer fence, three sides of the property face open desert. Kukol cautions me to keep an eye out for native wildlife as we take our tour. Scorpions, rattlers and tarantulas are prevalent in this country.
The other predators here are kept behind locked doors. The first in a series of large cages holds a 400-plus-pound white tiger, submerged up to his head in a small pool. His name is Elvis.
Kukol’s menagerie includes 17 canines (many of which are more wolf than dog) and 13 cats—tigers, lions, bobcats and smaller species like ocelots and servals. “They’re not all tigers, just most of them,” she laughs.
Kukol speaks with a strong Eastern European accent. She’s slender with deeply tanned skin and bleached yellow hair, and she wears boots that look like they’ve seen hard work. She moved to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia in 1986 as a political refugee, and there’s a toughness to her that seems to soften slightly around the animals. Here on the compound she bought in 2000, Kukol is a strong matriarch. She speaks in absolutes about her tigers and the lawmakers that would seek to ban them, her confidence almost as visible as her sinewy muscles.
The acrid smell of rotting meat fills the air as we stroll from cage to cage, observing the cats that lounge lazily in patches of shade, mostly ignoring us and each other. A neighbor’s horse died recently while giving birth, and instead of paying a removal service to lug the carcass away, the body has gone to feed Kukol’s cats. Elvis casually chews on a horse femur in his cage. “That’s what I call recycling,” she says.
The tigers typically eat 10 to 12 pounds of meat per day, much of it donated by local grocery stores when it’s past the expiration date. “Food is something in small pieces from the supermarket,” Kukol explains. “If it moves, it’s a friend or a toy.”
She bristles at the stereotypes of tigers in basements and lions chained in subdivision backyards. “You cannot hide this,” she says, gesturing to the expansive facility. “We don’t have them in a small Summerlin lot. I wouldn’t even keep a dog there. It’s too small. You get a tiger, you know it’s going to be 400 pounds. If you live in an apartment, you don’t buy a horse.”
Along with Elvis, there’s Bam Bam, a massive 7-year-old African lion that’s been with Kukol since he was 5 months old; Kukol’s first tiger, Pepper; Frosty, a snow white tiger with almost no stripes; Bobby the bobcat; and a beautiful ocelot named Isis that’s in heat. She rubs her lean body along the cage where Shoemaker scratches and pets her.
When I ask Kukol why she keeps tigers instead of tabby cats, she pauses. “Just look at them. … There is this animal, it could kill you, but it doesn’t want to. It’s complete trust. You can’t have that with any human.”
But trust is a tricky word. Tony Fercos, a friend of Kukol and one half of the Fercos Brothers circus act, shows off a giant scar stretching down his forearm. The brothers were on tour when they decided to try out new costumes. “I was like a voodoo god, feathers everywhere,” Fercos recalls. “Asia, the tiger, she looked at me and thought, Look at that chicken.” The tiger attacked in a sort of trance, bearing down on Fercos’ arm and leaving him with a massive wound that required 300 stitches.
“She was the best tiger in the world,” he says. And after he recovered, the Fercos Brothers continued their show. Same act. Same tiger. No feathers.
The trust Kukol has for her animals comes with respect and precautions. She and Shoemaker train the animals, putting habañero pepper sauce on their arms so the tigers learn not to mouth, but the couple has also studied zoo habitats and spent tens of thousands of dollars ensuring their enclosures are sound. Each cage has misters and high walls—8 feet for those with fully enclosed roofs, 12 feet for open ones, with an additional 4-foot barbed-wire overhang. Local firemen and paramedics have visited the property and helped create emergency plans. Animal control inspects annually. In 2006, Kukol founded Rexano, a nonprofit dedicated to the responsible ownership of exotic animals.
When Kukol and Shoemaker heard Senator Roberson was working on a bill to limit exotic animal ownership, the pair says, they reached out to him and invited him to visit their facility. An aide eventually stopped by, but the couple says they’ve never heard from Roberson himself. Our calls to him for comment were not returned.
As the sun starts to cease its afternoon onslaught, Kukol and Shoemaker take Princess, a petite 3-year-old tiger, out on a chain for some photos. The three of them stroll toward the desert like some alternative version of the nuclear family. Kukol bends over and hugs the cat around her wide orange neck. She purrs lowly. “Oh, you are such a scary tiger,” Kukol chides lovingly.
It’s easy to see how someone could fall for these majestic creatures, but how can we be sure that everyone who takes home a cuddly tiger cub knows how to care for the 400-pound beast it will become?
“There’s bad exotic owners just like there’s bad dog owners,” Shoemaker says. But, he adds, when someone is bitten or killed by a dog, “They attack the dog owner. They don’t attack dog ownership.”
Despite what happened in Zanesville, things don’t go dramatically wrong with exotic animals very often. Clark County’s documented animals include wallabies, leopards, kangaroos and more than 40 lions, yet only a handful of people have been injured or killed by such animals in recent memory. More often than not, they’re the handlers or owners—people who work with them every day and understand the risks.
Keith Evans knows the risks as well as anyone. He’s owned large cats for more than 40 years, and he’s kept them in Las Vegas since 1975. Back then, he says, he was required to get every neighbor’s consent to move in. It took a year, but eventually he did it. He and his cats have held various jobs around town, and until the MGM Grand closed its lion habitat last year, Evans provided the lions for the attraction, driving them to and from the Strip in a custom air-conditioned van each day.
Today, Evans keeps 40 large cats—lions and one tiger—plus he has a litter of 2-week-old lion cubs that he’s bottle-feeding and pottying “24 hours a day, every hour, hour and a half.” The animals live on a 6.5-acre property on Bermuda Road, which Evans has dubbed the Lion Habitat Ranch and plans to open to the public this weekend. The closest neighbors are more than a half-mile away, though, Evans says, with the proper facility, “you could live right next door to apartment complexes. It wouldn’t make any difference.”
What Nevada needs, he says, are detailed regulations that define exactly how animals can be kept, instead of leaving it up to the owner and animal control officers. “We should have some sort of set standards that everybody has to adhere to if you’re going to do this, so there’s no question, so you can’t end up with three tigers in your backyard in bad caging. … You’ve gotta set up a standard that is not arbitrary. You’ve gotta say, ‘This what you need. This is how you get it. When you get it, then you can bring your animals here.’
“Make good laws, enforce your good laws and I’m happy. But don’t go overboard because somebody’s telling you ‘Ohio could happen all over again.’ Ohio’s not going to happen all over again. In the whole history, Ohio never happened but once.”
Evans points to California’s permitting and regulation system as a model. “For me to go to California, I need a state Fish and Wildlife permit. I need a city permit for where I’m going to shoot the movie or whatever I’m doing, and then I need a city inspector to come out and inspect where I’m going to be while I’m there. You can come to Nevada, and none of that applies.”
For his part, Foose supports most of the changes the commissioners have suggested. “If you have a problem with animal control inspecting your animals, you don’t need ’em,” he says. But he argues that the hype around exotic animals as a public safety hazard is overblown. “If a tiger gets loose, it’s not going to attack someone; it’s going to try to find his way home. If you confront him, if you corner him, he’ll probably kill you. But I’d probably do the same in a dark alley.”
After the chimp escape this summer, Evans says he volunteered to help animal control with inspections, but the county never took him up on the offer. Even if they had, there’s no guarantee the people who build the necessary enclosures will always remember to lock the cages, that they’ll always pick up on the signals when an animal is feeling aggressive, that they’ll be able to keep every intruder out or to protect themselves should an attack ever come.
“You take every safety precaution you can, but accidents happen,” Evans says. “I’m not stupid. I understand that any time I work in direct contact [with the lions] I’m potentially putting my life at risk.”
Before Foose closes the shop for the night, he tells me a story. He was working on a Death Valley movie shoot involving wolves when one of the animals broke free from the handlers and made a run for the motor home where Foose was fixing a roast beef sandwich. A frantic call came through the walkie-talkie, warning him to prepare for an attack. Foose didn’t listen.
“I did what any sane person would do,” he says. “I made two sandwiches.” When the wolf came charging up, “I held out two handfuls of roast beef. Then he wagged his tail, and I said, ‘Would you like some ham?’”