On Sunday, families around Houston celebrated Mother’s Day. Maybe they did so by watching the Astros hold off the Blue Jays to claim second place in the AL West or by catching up on something on Netflix. Or, if they lived on Ivy Wall Drive in a west Houston neighborhood just off of George Bush Park, they may have spent the evening avoiding being eaten by a tiger.
The first video of the escaped tiger began circulating on Twitter shortly after 9 p.m., shared by user @robwormald, whose parents live in the neighborhood. In the video, we can see a tiger prowling a residential neighborhood, moving with purpose toward a man—later identified as an off-duty Waller County sheriff’s deputy—who keeps a handgun trained on the jungle cat, shouting “No, sir” at the beast as it approaches. The video is a bit choppy after that—presumably, observing a standoff between an armed man and a five-hundred-pound predator would trigger fight-or-flight instincts in most of us!—but the intrepid wildlife documentarian returns to capture more of the confrontation. Just before it turns into Animal Planet, the tiger’s owner offers to retrieve his pet, an offer the deputy doesn’t immediately accept. “F— you and your f—ing tiger,” he responds.
The Houston Chronicle reports that the tiger’s caretaker brought the carnivorous feline back inside the house before any shots were fired. But the tale of this tiger prince has only just begun. He loaded the jungle cat into the back of his white Jeep Cherokee and sped off into the night before the police arrived. Just a man and his tiger, outlaws fleeing from the long arm of Johnny Law. “We’ve got one running away with the tiger in the car,” the police radio noted before the man escaped on Texas Highway 6.
In all, it looks like a rather thrilling night in Houston! Especially since it ended without the tiger being shot or, you know, mauling anybody on a manicured lawn and feasting on their flesh. (Bizarrely, a report on Monday afternoon indicated that the man who coaxed the tiger out of the street was out on bond after a November murder arrest, which does take some of the fun out of things.) Curiously, while there are not a great many tiger maulings in Texas, encountering one in a suburban habitat is not as uncommon as you might think.
In February, a San Antonio homeowner spotted a tiger patrolling her backyard after it hopped a fence at the property where it was being kept. The animal’s caretaker had lent it to a friend, who wanted to show it off to his family, according to News 4 San Antonio. Police tracked down the man who’d brought it to the neighborhood, who told them not to worry: he’d recaptured the cat and brought it back to his friend, where it was safely relaxing with the other tigers he owned. Other would-be Joe Exotics in the Alamo City include the couple who, in March, were arrested for keeping a wee li’l tiger cub (thirteen weeks!) and a bobcat on the southeast side. (The cub now lives safely in the care of zoological professionals in Houston.) Another pet tiger—nicknamed Elsa, after the character in Frozen—was rescued by Bexar County sheriffs during the February deep freeze and relocated to the Black Beauty Ranch, in the East Texas city of Murchison.
San Antonio isn’t necessarily a big-cat hot spot—going further back beyond 2021, you can find tales of escaped tigers throughout the state—so we’d consider the glut of stories from the past few months in Bexar County more of a coincidence than anything. But there are more captive tigers in Texas than you might think. A frequently cited factoid holds that there are more tigers in Texas than in the wild. That’s impossible to verify (there’s not a complete registry of all privately held tigers in Texas), but it has a certain element of believability to it. When WFAA asked Texas Humane Society’s Katie Jarl in 2018 if there are more than 4,000 tigers held in captivity in Texas—which would tip it past the 3,890 believed to be left in the wild—she was noncommittal. “I wouldn’t say it’s completely accurate,” she told the station, though, she added, “wouldn’t surprise me.”
Laws governing tiger ownership vary around Texas—there’s no state law forbidding tiger ownership, though owners are supposed to register their absurd pet. But both Bexar County and the City of Houston ban the ownership of wild animals, as do other parts of the state. The most likely prospect for change lies not in Texas but in Washington, D.C. The Big Cat Public Safety Act was reintroduced in the U.S. Senate last month, after stalling during the previous congressional term. The bill, which would restrict private ownership of tigers and other such animals, passed the House with bipartisan support in 2020, after the release of Netflix’s Tiger King documentary. What happened in Houston on Mother’s Day is unusual, but it seems as though nary a month goes by here when somebody’s tiger isn’t making headlines. Till the next one, may we all remain firmly atop the food chain.