By JUAN A. LOZANO Associated Press
HOUSTON (AP) — A tiger that frightened residents after it was last seen briefly wandering around a Houston neighborhood was transported to a wildlife sanctuary on Sunday after police found the animal a day earlier following a nearly week-long search.
The 9-month-old male named India is now being cared for at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, an animal sanctuary in Murchison, Texas, located southeast of Dallas, said Noelle Almrud, the sanctuary’s senior director.
“Black Beauty Ranch will provide safe sanctuary for him and give him a proper diet, enrichment, an expansive naturally wooded habitat where he can safely roam and will provide everything else he needs to be the healthy wild tiger he deserves to be,” she said.
The sanctuary is home to nearly 800 domestic and exotic animals, including two other tigers who were found in recent years — one in Houston in 2019 and another in February in San Antonio.
Houston police announced Saturday night that India had been found safe and unharmed. In a short video tweeted by Houston police, Cmdr. Ron Borza was seen sitting next to the tiger, petting the animal.
The tiger was held at BARC, the city of Houston’s animal shelter, until officials with the sanctuary picked him up Sunday morning.
Authorities had been searching for the tiger since it was spotted May 9 in a west Houston neighborhood. At the time, it was nearly shot by an off-duty deputy before being whisked away in a car by Victor Hugo Cuevas, who police allege is the owner.
At a news conference Saturday evening, Borza said that Cuevas’ wife, Giorgiana, turned over the tiger to police on Saturday after a friend of hers reached out to officials at BARC.
“It is Victor’s tiger. That’s what I was told by (Giorgiana Cuevas) … She says they’ve had that animal for nine months,” Borza said. He alleged that the tiger was passed around to different people but that Cuevas’ wife knew where the tiger was at all times this week as authorities searched for it.
Police are still trying to determine where exactly the tiger was held this week and if any charges related to having the tiger will be filed. Tigers are not allowed within Houston city limits under a city ordinance unless the handler, such as a zoo, is licensed to have exotic animals.
But Cuevas’ attorney, Michael W. Elliott, on Saturday night continued to insist his client doesn’t own the tiger.
“Victor was not the primary owner of India nor did India stay with him the majority of the time,” Elliott told The Associated Press. “Victor was however involved in the caretaking of India often. Victor loves India as anyone else would love a favorite pet … He treated India with love and fantastic treatment in all respects.”
Cuevas was arrested Monday by Houston police and charged with evading arrest for allegedly fleeing his home with the tiger after officers had responded to a call about a dangerous animal.
At the time of his arrest by Houston police, Cuevas was already out on bond for a murder charge in a 2017 fatal shooting in neighboring Fort Bend County. Cuevas has maintained the shooting was self-defense, Elliott said.
Cuevas was released on a separate bond for the evading arrest charge on Wednesday. But prosecutors in Fort Bend County then sought to have him held with no bond on the murder charge. After an all-day hearing on Friday, a judge revoked Cuevas’ current $125,000 bond on the murder charge and issued a new bond for $300,000. He remains jailed.
During Friday’s court hearing, Waller County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Wes Manion, who lives in the Houston neighborhood where the tiger was seen, testified he interacted with the animal for about 10 minutes to make sure it didn’t go after someone else. He said Cuevas came out of his house yelling, “Don’t kill it,” grabbed the tiger by the collar and kissed its head before leading it back inside his home. Various videos of the tiger’s encounter with Manion were posted on social media.
Elliott has said Cuevas did nothing illegal because Texas has no statewide law forbidding private ownership of tigers and other exotic animals.
Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, which runs the sanctuary, said Sunday while India might have appeared to be safe, “Big cats like India express natural, unpredictable behaviors that can occur at any moment.” Borza said India already weighs 175 pounds (79 kg), it can “do a lot of damage” and will only get bigger.
“Situations like this are why we are working to pass federal legislation. The Big Cat Public Safety Act would prohibit keeping big cats as pets,” Block said.