December 08, 2003 12:00 PM

Carol Pistilli was so shaken by the news that showman Roy Horn had been mauled by one of his tigers in October, she decided to send him a get-well e-mail. “I wanted to let him know it’s something you can live through,” says the former administrative assistant from Boynton Beach, Fla.

She should know. Last year, Pistilli was nearly killed when a tiger attacked her during a visit to a friend’s private menagerie. “At first I felt something soft on my back,” recalls Pistilli, 60, who had walked into a cage without realizing that a 750-lb. Bengal-Siberian-mix tiger named Bobo was already inside. “The next thing I knew my head was in his mouth, and he wasn’t letting go.” Fortunately, when Pistilli’s husband, Michael, and the animal’s owner shouted for it to stop, the creature backed off just as suddenly as he’d sprung. “When we got to her,” says Michael, “Carol was in a pool of blood.”

Pistilli has since recovered from the attack but not without permanent nerve damage to her face and total loss of hearing in her right ear. Still, she’s alive—unlike seven other people who have died in tiger attacks in this country in the past five years. In fact, with the Oct. 3 mauling of Horn (see page 152 for update) and the discovery the next day of a 425-lb. adult tiger living in a fifth-floor Harlem apartment, shocking stories about big cats are never far from the headlines these days. This year there have been two deadly incidents: A 31-year-old tiger owner was killed in Illinois on March 31, and a 35-year-old woman in Oklahoma died after a tiger ripped off her arm in April. In Chincoteague, Va., homemaker Helen White was attacked Jan. 15 by a black panther that had escaped from its owner. At the time, she was chatting on the phone in the kitchen of her mobile home. “His eyes looked as green as poison,” recalls White, 77, who hit the animal on the head with a broom before it slashed her leg and arm. She recovered from her wounds after a brief hospitalization.

Prompted by such attacks, coupled with an explosion in private ownership of wild animals as pets, the U.S. Congress passed legislation last month to ban interstate commerce in large cats such as lions and tigers except for use by zoos, circuses and licensed breeders. “We’ve seen too many incidents where exotic cats have endangered public safety and been treated inhumanely,” says Vermont’s Sen. Jim Jeffords, who cosponsored the bill in the Senate.

Even supporters of the law doubt the booming trade in exotic animals will screech to a halt. Spurred on by Discovery Channel animal shows and the example of celebrity owners like Mike Tyson, thousands of Americans have joined the big-cat club, following fads for everything from the African serval (which looks like a small cheetah) to the lion-and-tiger hybrid known as a liger. Furthermore, the Internet has made buying exotic animals as easy as picking Beanie Babies off eBay: A quick online search reveals that an adult bobcat can be had for as little as $300 (see box below).

Before last week’s legislation was passed, there was no federal law controlling the big-cat trade. Nineteen states currently ban private ownership of big cats as pets outright, and 23 others require owners to get a permit—a process that can involve an on-site inspection. But even where feline fanciers are in full compliance with the law, they often act without considering the consequences. A cuddly tiger cub can quickly grow into a powerful animal hardwired to kill—and to consume up to $5,500 worth of meat a year. “It is absolutely insane for people to keep 500-lb. wild carnivores as pets,” says Wayne Pacelle, a senior vice president of the Humane Society.

According to Pacelle, there are 15,000 big cats in private hands in the U.S., including 5,000 to 7,000 tigers—more than actually live in the wild. For some owners, however, that’s just the point. With the steady erosion of habitats in Africa and Asia, wild populations are dwindling, making responsible conservation of cat species ever more important. “This is the only way these animals are going to survive,” says Randy Davies, an Arizona dealer. Adds Lynn Culver, legal affairs director of the Feline Conservation Federation: “You can’t help but be attracted to the personality of a large cat.”

Animal devotee Bill Olson felt the same way when he began taking in neglected lions and tigers at his private sanctuary in Hennepin, Ill. But last March, as he was cleaning a pen, he broke his own Rule No. 1: Never turn your back on a tiger. Rearing up on her hind legs, a 2-year-old female in heat swatted Olson, 31, to the ground. He died at the scene. “We talked about the danger,” says his father, John Olson, 55. “But Bill also could have been the guy who drove a racecar into the wall. Everybody picks their poison.”

Olson’s death shone a light on what animal advocates identify as another problem: conditions at the private shelters where lions and tigers often end up when their owners can no longer keep them. Olson’s mauling wasn’t the first to happen at his zoo; 9-year-old Angela Starkey was bitten by a tiger there during a visit last year and needed 110 stitches to repair her arm.

In another case, in New Jersey, longtime cat keeper Joan Byron-Marasek was forced by a court to surrender 24 tigers at her 12-acre property in Jackson after a lone tiger was spotted wandering unattended in the streets. When state officials entered the sanctuary, they found animals with open sores living in truck trailers and narrow metal chutes. “There was hardly enough room for them to turn around,” says Martin McHugh, director of New Jersey’s Department of Environment Protection, Division of Fish and Wildlife. Byron-Marasek, who declined to comment for this article, denied the wandering tiger was hers and fought to keep her cats for four years before they were forcibly moved to a Texas refuge Nov. 11.

Animal advocates hope the recent federal legislation will help spread big-cat bans throughout the country. But that means owners like Victoria Windland-Taraska, who keeps 14 tigers, leopards, and cougars near Ocala, Fla., would be devastated. “Would you get rid of an animal you raised from a baby, that’s part of your family?” she asks.

Halfway across the country, another family whose hearts have already been broken are grappling with the same questions. On Oct. 10, 2001, 3-year-old Matthew Scott visited his stepgrandfather, Kerry Quinney, now 51, in Lexington, Texas, and asked to pose in a photo with one of Quinney’s three tigers. “Matthew was in my arms, and Nila, one of my females, took one of his cowboy boots in her mouth and tugged,” recalls Quinney, an oilman. “I shouldn’t have pulled back.”

Nila tore Matthew from Quinney’s arms and ran toward her cage with the boy dangling upside down from her jaws. Matthew’s head hit a metal pipe, and the toddler died that day. His parents, James Scott, 29, a river-boat captain, and Charlotte, 26, a hairdresser, later moved out of the state, to Manhattan, Kans. “I cannot think of that night, because I get sick to the stomach,” says Charlotte. Yet to this day, Quinney misses the three tigers he decided to give away after the tragedy. “I’d love to have those three back right now,” he says. “And if I did, they’d be in my house just like they were before. Nila slept on the bed with me every night.”

Susan Horsburgh, Joanna Blonska and Alicia Shepard in Washington, D.C., Chad Love in Woodward, Okla., Noah Isackson in Chicago, Lori Rozsa in Boynton Beach and Kate Silver in Las Vegas

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