Tigers, Cougars, and More in the Back Yard

Miami's feline fringe is a vanishing breed

Alan Rigerman pokes his head out the door of his little gray house in Northwest Miami-Dade and emits a crackle of excited greetings. He is dressed, as always, in a black T-shirt and Sportif khaki shorts; his hair is pasted to the side of his head with a heavy dose of hair spray.

When he steps inside, a black-and-white housecat named Oreo begins vying for attention — to no avail.

The darkened living room is neat but well-worn; signs of Rigerman can be found on every surface. A long bookshelf packed with antique scientific texts occupies one wall; a terrarium containing a pair of Gila monsters rests just behind his head. Eighteenth-century floral prints accompany a painting of a bare-chested brunette that his neighbor almost threw away. The top of his large wooden dining table is scarred with millions of tiny loops: the result of 40-plus years of incessant letter writing.

Alan Rigerman with Chaos, his cougar
Calvin Godfrey
Alan Rigerman with Chaos, his cougar
Anthony Zitnick with Chaos
Calvin Godfrey
Anthony Zitnick with Chaos

At age 64, Rigerman occupies a room like a small tornado: fussing and vacillating with all the vim of a supercharged Zero Mostel. He enjoyed a 35-year career as a Miami-Dade County schoolteacher. The job was his life. In 1975 he married a former student; it lasted seven years. "It was a wonderful marriage," he says. "And a terrific divorce." He retired in 2003.

In a way, Rigerman offers everything that democracy is supposed to want in its citizens: hyperinvolvement, flawless attendance, and a kind of needling obsession with all things civic. He writes letters to the editor of every publication, small and large (including New Times), from Homestead to Fort Lauderdale. He opines about handicapped parking and his prostate, animal rights activists and his boa constrictors.

Lately someone has been hurtling jars of excrement through his front window. Three in all. Each has coincided with the appearance of a letter-to-the-editor. The last missile was housed in a cup from a nearby restaurant. "So I know it's local," Rigerman says with hardly a trace of indignation. Whoever it was also threw a dead cat.

He prays for a "federal enema" to come down on the crooked Miami-Dade County Commission, and is titillated by the thought that iguanas have been granted the same kind of amnesty as Cuban immigrants. In November 2005 he ran an admittedly futile campaign against county Commissioner Natasha Seijas, just to "get [his] issues out there." One of them is the private ownership of big cats.

Unholy yowls emanate from the rear of the house. On the way through his tidy kitchen, Rigerman picks up a package of raw chicken drumsticks. Oreo follows for a bit and then skedaddles as her master enters a concrete room where he stores feeder mice, cleaning supplies, and a pair of cougars. Half of the 20-by-30-foot space is walled off into two chainlink cells. A corridor runs between the enclosures, separating mother and son. If they were placed in the same cage, they would likely kill one another.

Rigerman begins pushing the drumsticks (six dollars' worth) through spaces in the fencing. The cougars take them up in their mouths and make quick work of them with a single loud snap.

Chantell, lying on a large wooden shelf, regards Rigerman with a pair of beautiful, soft bronze eyes. Chaos, her son, paces furiously. His heavy shoulder muscles shift menacingly under his blond hide as he leaps from his shelf to the floor and back. Rigerman, feeling brave, places an air horn in his pocket "in case of emergency" and steps into the cage. He grabs a loose section of wire caging, which he holds up as a kind of shield.

He did not always need the extra protection, he says, but he now suffers from terrible spinal pain. He can't tussle with his cats these days without some measure of caution. He pushes open the door as Chaos thrusts his giant head toward the opening, butting Rigerman in the shins.

The cat dives between his legs and begins pawing his ankles; though Chaos was declawed as a cub, he has visibly powerful jabs. "He's a youngster," Rigerman says, trying to steady himself. "He hasn't learned his manners yet." He shuffles away from Chaos, who darts behind him and leaps up on his owner's back, placing both front paws on his shoulders. Rigerman jerks upright, in agony.

"No!" he barks, his voice echoing like an explosion off the walls. "Bad! Bad! Get back!" He bops Chaos on the head; the cat slinks away. "Does he actually know it's bad? I don't know, but he stops."

The moment passes like an eternity. For Rigerman, whose arms bear several bite marks and long scratches, this counts as a pleasant encounter. "Look how good he's being," he says as the cat ecstatically runs his fur through Rigerman's fingers.

Rigerman does not pretend to totally understand the animal and freely admits there is a chance it would maul him if he let it. It would not be a bad way to die, he muses.

Animal rights activists, alarmist neighbors, and the squeeze of increasingly tighter legislation have pushed Miami's cat people from the city to the suburbs to the farthest edges of town.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets