Saturday, July 16, 2005

ENV: Fun in the boonies

Not too far south of us, in places where i have skulked recently looking for birds and odes and snails, comes this report (which, since we live in big cat country also isn't all that frightening . . . or is it . . .) from the San Antonio Express-News:

Tiger tales swish through Atascosa
Brian Chasnoff, Express-News Staff Writer, Web Posted: 07/14/2005 12:00 AM CDT

PLEASANTON — For six months, something has been prowling the countryside along FM 3006 in northern Atascosa County, snatching up dogs, roosters and calves.

One night in early May, rancher Brian Beam was baling hay on his tractor when he says he came face-to-face with what could be the culprit: a full-grown tiger, he said, lurking along the creek running through his 27-acre property.

"It was huge," Beam said. "I threw (the tractor) into reverse and I was gone. It just took off down the creek."

The cat was waist-high with orange fur and black stripes, Beam said.

He rallied two neighbors, grabbed some guns and flashlights and took off in pursuit of the creature, which Beam now blames for the March disappearance of two of his calves.

"We never could catch up to him, but we found a bunch of hair and tracks," he said.

While searching Gallinas Creek with Beam for an hour and a half, Jake Turner, 19, said he found "huge" tracks in the mud and orange and black fur stuck in a fence that crosses the creek.

Despite Beam's story — and other unusual events reported in recent months by neighbors — some remain skeptical that the beast is anything more than a rural legend.

"We have no substantiated reports of loose tigers whatsoever," said David Soward, chief deputy at the Atascosa County Sheriff's Department. "Everything I've heard is like fourth- and fifth-hand information. And none of this has come directly to the Sheriff's Office."

As for Beam, he no longer goes anywhere on his property without a loaded, long-barreled SKS rifle perched on the front seat of his pickup, and his wife has stopped venturing beyond the back lawn.

Bobcats and mountain lions are indigenous to this region. Tigers are not. They're the largest members of the cat family and typically roam Southern Asia.

But a tiger in Atascosa County makes perfect sense if someone was raising it, said Mark Turner, Jake's father.

"I saw (a man) drive by, and he was going real slow," said Turner, recalling an January incident in front of his house on north of Pleasanton. . "Then he backed up and came over and asked me if I had seen a tiger. He told me they had one that had gotten away from them."

The man, whose name Turner could not recall, said the tiger was his son's "pet" and had escaped from a pen, Turner said.

Keeping wild animals — including tigers — is a Class C misdemeanor in Atascosa County. The government doesn't regulate ownership of exotic cats as pets, but anyone who breeds or raises a tiger needs a federal permit.

And while nobody else in the area has reported seeing a tiger, some believe it has made its presence known.

Across the creek, just beyond the strip of thick brush that flanks its now bone-dry banks, Manuel Rodriguez has had seven dogs disappear since January.

"At night, they bark and they run out to the woods," said Rodriguez, 73, resting in the shade with his two remaining dogs, a pit bull and a terrier. "I come out and shine a spotlight, but I don't see nothing. I go back in, and the next day, one's gone, two's gone. They just disappear."

Rodriguez has lost dogs in the past, but never at this rate, he said.

Just downstream from Rodriguez's property, his nephew lost some animals of his own. Standing on the porch of his trailer home, Ray Rodriguez spoke of five game roosters that vanished from his 50 acres last month.

"These things were gone," he said. "There were feathers all over the place, but they were totally gone."

Nearby was a mysterious sway in the thick nylon cords of his fence.

"It wasn't no coyote," Ray Rodriguez said. "It wasn't no raccoon. My fence is pretty tight, so whatever came over there must've been pretty good-sized."

About a mile up FM 3006, another alleged attack occurred in May, this time leaving a bloodied victim behind. Ray Casarez noticed two horses — a stallion and a 20-year-old mare — had broken from their pen on his 400-acre ranch.

"Something had to scare them pretty much, because these horses went right through the fence," Casarez said. "I went looking for the mare, and I found her with her chest wide open. There were scratches on her neck. She couldn't move because of the gashes being so deep and the loss of blood."

The stallion was unharmed. The mare survived, but is crippled. Casarez still doesn't know what nearly took her life.

"A pack of coyotes ain't gonna scare the horses, because the horses will attack coyotes," he said. "Mountain lions are not big enough to take down a 16 and a half (hands high) horse."

Scott Schmidt, the Pleasanton veterinarian who tended to the mare, believes she received her wounds from the pen's netting and single strand of barbed wire.

"What spooked it, I don't know for sure," Schmidt said. "But its injuries were from running through the fence."

But the mare's wounds also are consistent with a tiger attack, according to Richard Gilbreath, director of the International Exotic Feline Sanctuary near Fort Worth.

"A tiger's going to grab a horse by the neck," said Gilbreath, who has worked with big cats for 15 years. "They kill by suffocation around the neck."

If a tiger were in the area, it would prowl mostly along the creeks, where there's water, cover from the sun and animals to eat — such as South Texas' ubiquitous feral hogs and deer, Gilbreath said. Tigers' ranges in the wild can be up to 500 square miles, he said.

"If you're talking about a tiger that's been raised in captivity, you might throw all this out the window, because they haven't been taught to hunt," Gilbreath said. "... So the only thing they're going on is pure instinct. But he's going to have to eat somewhere, somehow."

The chances of a human becoming a tiger's entrée are unlikely, as long as the animal is left alone, Gilbreath said. Still, he calls a roving tiger "very dangerous."

"The problem is, people will agitate him, they'll startle him," Gilbreath said. "And it depends on if he's hungry."

Should someone encounter the beast, Gilbreath recommends leaving it alone or calling the sheriff.

"Don't approach it. Don't get into its space," he said. "Don't stand in front of a window, because it'll go through a window."

Both the Sheriff's Office and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said their agencies would help deal with any bona fide escaped tiger.

Soward said the Sheriff's Department would "take measures to capture or tranquilize (a loose tiger), or do anything to quell the threat."

And he has additional advice for anyone who encounters the beast.

"Photographic evidence would be nice," Soward said. "In our business, we base our work on facts and evidence. And right now, there's no facts or evidence to support that there is a loose tiger."

Arthur McCall, a game warden for Atascosa County, echoed Soward's doubts.

"That would be highly unlikely, in my estimation," McCall said. "But who knows? In this day and age, people have all kinds of things they don't tell us about."

As for Rodriguez, he has a plan should the woods devour the last of his dogs.

"After these run out, I don't want any more," he said with a morbid grin. "I'm gonna get me some cats."


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