Tigers, Cougars, and More in the Back Yard

Miami's feline fringe is a vanishing breed

Over the past two decades, after a trio of child maulings (all associated with a single cat owner), the laws regulating the ownership of big cats got tougher. Beginning in 2000, Floridians applying to own lions, tigers, and leopards ("Class I" cats — the ones that roar) were required to own five acres surrounded by a bad-ass eight-foot fence. Owners of cougars, panthers, and clouded leopards ("Class II," or purring cats) were required to have two and a half acres — and a bad-ass fence.

Owners who bought their cats before the state involved itself in exotic pet ownership were grandfathered in. But the move marked the beginning of the end for the town's cat keepers. "The limitation on acreage will preclude such animals from being kept in small residential neighborhoods where zoning and public safety conflicts are problematic," Col. Julie Jones, director of the law enforcement arm of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, wrote in a 2002 memo.

This past July, partly in response to growing hysteria about giant pythons in the Everglades, the state legislature voted to require all owners of "animals of concern" — including venomous snakes, bears, and cats — to obtain two million dollars' worth of liability insurance or a $10,000 bond. Despite the fact that they had nothing to do with the python problem, venomous snake owners have already shelled out. Owners of big cats will have to pony up the dough come January 1.

Zitnick washes Chaos near the canal
Calvin Godfrey
Zitnick washes Chaos near the canal
Rigerman with Chantell, in her cage
Calvin Godfrey
Rigerman with Chantell, in her cage

In 2004, Humane USA, an animal rights-oriented political action committee, posted on its Website a list of the names and addresses of all Floridians licensed "to display dangerous cats." Only 31 names are listed in Miami. One — Rigerman — is listed in Hialeah. There are four in Homestead.

A half-dozen or so have moved away, lost their cats, or no longer keep them. Some are businesses or nonprofit "sanctuaries." Two work in zoos and don't own cats as pets. Some names are redundant — owners and their businesses, husbands and wives. Those who remain comprise a handful of working stiffs (plumbers, schoolteachers, prison guards) and wealthy eccentrics.

The new legislation will likely ensure that the ownership of big cats will be limited to businesses, the wealthy, and the feckless — those who tend to buy the animals on a whim, only to discover they can't take care of them. The Alan Rigermans of South Florida — thrifty and obsessed, the kind of people willing to own a pet that costs between $7 and $40 per day to feed, who are willing to forgo vacations and shell out thousands of dollars to exotic veterinarians — are becoming a thing of the past.

Elaine Berman acquired a black leopard in the late Eighties. The cat lived 24 years, in her Kendall townhouse, and died this summer. Berman maintains her license, but doubts, at age 73, she'll purchase another. Ultimately she thinks the limitations on cat ownership are a good thing. "They can live a long time," she cautions.

Organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have long battled the ownership of big cats. "There's not an accredited zoo in the country that gives [big cats] the space they need," says PETA's captive exotic animals specialist, Lisa Watheny, "much less a private owner." She suggests that the tighter regulations will mean a certain end for big-cat exhibitors.

"They're a dying breed," says Lt. Pat Reynolds of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.


Dressed in a stained white undershirt and hiking boots, a beefy 20-year-old named Anthony Zitnick (a.k.a. AJ) walks through Rigerman's front door and crashes in a heavy chair. One of several young men Rigerman allows to handle his cats, Zitnick navigates the house with the sour familiarity of a teenage son. His bleach-blond hair hangs down over his neck, and a thin mustache curls over his upper lip. Scars run up the outside of his forearms, vestiges of fisticuffs from his days at American High School, near Medley.

"A lot of people thought it was suicidal," Zitnick says, rolling his eyes dramatically. "That's how smart people at my high school were — that I had to dig through muscle and bone to reach veins on the other side."

He grew up around the block from Rigerman. About two years ago, following Hurricane Wilma, Zitnick began helping him clean up his house. Chaos was born a year later, and Zitnick started coming by to help rear the cub. Rigerman sometimes pays him eight dollars an hour, and seems happy for the company.

Zitnick rolls his eyes as Rigerman explains all of this; the young man seems impatient to get Chaos out. "He's a good guy," Zitnick mutters as Rigerman walks into the next room. "He just talks a lot."

Once in the cage room, Rigerman suggests they take out Chantell. Zitnick rolls his eyes again. "When was the last time you did that?" he asks.

Rigerman gives no answer. "There's no question that the best place for all these animals is in the wild," he says as Zitnick climbs into Chaos's cage, armed with only a collar and a thick chain leash. "But man is such that he has been keeping these kinds of animals since the Christians were fed to the lions."

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